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France-Germany, Rio de Janiero, July 4th (photo: AFP/Christophe Simon)

France-Germany, Rio de Janiero, July 4th (photo: AFP/Christophe Simon)

Hélas… I was optimistic for Les Bleus’s chances against the Mannschaft, had visions of them moving on to beat Brazil or Colombia in the semifinal, and then maybe winning the big one on July 13th. But it is not to be. The French outplayed the Germans in the second half but just couldn’t get the ball past goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Everyone here was so disappointed. But for the first time in my soccer memory—i.e. since the mid ’90s, when I started to follow international competition and the French national team—the reaction in the press and by the public to the French team’s elimination has not been to beat up on or savage them, as was (deservedly) the case in 2002 and 2010 (as for 2006, I will personally never forgive Zineddine Zidane for his unforgivable headbutt of Marco Materazzi at the 110th minute in the final, though public opinion remains divided on this). Just about everyone—or so it appears the day after—is speaking highly of the team in defeat, a team few thought before last November 19th would get this far in the tournament. The French public was trashing the team nine months ago, now they adore it once again. The team members are young and sympathique, and with the 23 selected for the tournament not including prima donnas or manifest jerks in their ranks. And they’re very good soccer players. Didier Deschamps has done a great job of putting the team together, transforming it from “chumps to potential champs” and earning respect from the world in the process. Les Bleus are back in the world soccer elite. As France is the host country of the 2016 European championship—and with Les Bleus consequently automatically qualified for the tournament—, they won’t be playing any games that matter from now until June ’16. Just friendlies, which I almost never watch. So I probably won’t see them play for the next two years :-(

BTW, the Brazil-Colombia game that followed France-Germany was great, or at least high octane and very intense. Was one of the few all-South American games I’ve watched from beginning to end, confirming that South American soccer is more offensive, physical, and overall exciting to watch than European (and aided by the exuberance of the spectators in the packed stadium). Too bad about Neymar. Now I guess I have to be for the home team Brazil to win the thing.

Les Bleus (photo: AFP/Damien Meyer)

Les Bleus (photo: AFP/Damien Meyer)

Algerian national team homecoming, Algiers, July 2 2014 (Photo: Getty Images)

Algerian national team homecoming, Algiers, July 2 2014 (Photo: Getty Images)

This post is a couple of days late. First of all, here’s a post by poet and essayist Charles Simic on the NYR Blog (July 2nd), “Confessions of a Soccer Addict,” that I can relate to. Now I am not nearly as much of a soccer addict as Simic, as I only follow international tournaments—World Cup and European nations championships, and France’s qualifiers for these (and only since the mid 1990s)—and have not watched every last game of this tournament, but have still been caught up in it. Every two (even) years in June-early July, I become obsessed with international soccer. And once it’s over I move on to other things.

But this one’s not yet over, with the quarterfinals tomorrow and Saturday. In round 16 I was particularly focused on the games with France, Algeria, and the USA. Not much to say about France-Nigeria other than the Nigerian Super Eagles played a good game—their players are all with top flight clubs in Europe—and Les Bleus weren’t too reassuring for the first two-thirds of it, but they got it together in the final 20 minutes and deservedly won. I am not pessimistic for their chances against Germany.

As for Algeria’s Fennecs, they went out against Germany les têtes hautes, which is just as it should have been. As I wrote in the last post, I was thrilled by Algeria’s draw against Russia and qualification for round 16 but did not want Les Fennecs to defeat Germany, as this would have set up an Algeria-France quarterfinal—assuming, of course, that France beat Nigeria, as expected—, which was to be avoided at all costs. Living in France, my dread of an Algeria-France QF seemed to require no explanation—it went without saying—but then a friend asked me this question on FB after the Algeria-Germany game ended (with the German victory but Algeria valiantly attacking to the very end):

Arun, what was the political and social fall-out that we just dodged by avoiding a France-Algeria quarter-final? What in your view would have happened?

Response: I cannot say concretely what would have happened but such a match would put a few million Franco-Algerians in France in the position—uncomfortable for some, less so for others—of having to root for Algeria against France and, in the event of an Algerian victory, publicly celebrating France’s defeat on the streets of French cities, and in the event of Algeria’s defeat, being disappointed at France’s victory—and these are people who would otherwise be cheering for France if Algeria weren’t involved. The reaction in the larger French society would naturally be very negative, Marine Le Pen & Co. would make a huge deal about it, and would further poison what in America is referred to as “race relations,” which does not need any more poisoning in France right now. The Franco-Algerian relationship—a relationship with a long colonial history and bitter war of independence, for which there is no equivalent in American history—does not need this. It would generate a nasty political polemic—about immigrant integration (or the presumed lack of it)—, increased anti-immigration rhetoric within the parliamentary right and with calls for a revision of French nationality law (e.g. suppressing dual nationality), foster bad feelings all around, and which would not be quickly forgotten. Such an Algeria-France match would not be a big deal between Algeria and France or in any way affect state-to-state relations between the two countries; it would strictly be an affair of Algerian-origin French citizens.

We’re dealing here with multiple/hybrid ethnic identities clashing head on. Americans have little to no experience with this, as clashing identities are played out mainly in international team sports competition, and American sports do not have major international tournaments (and with American football having none at all). The only time (some) Americans have witnessed this is in USMNT soccer games with Mexico played in the United States, where stadiums—except in Columbus, Ohio—are invested by spectators cheering for Mexico, waving Mexican flags, and booing the US. But as most Americans don’t pay attention to soccer, most are not aware of this—and it is not clear what proportion of those fans are Mexican-Americans or simply Mexicans living in the US (or travelling to the US for the game).

In France, those cheering the Algerian team are, in their majority, citizens of France and with most of the younger ones having been born and raised in the country. That they support the Algerian national is only normal, as their parents are Algerian and Algeria is a part of their identity. Anecdote: I watched the Algeria-South Korea game on June 22nd chez a friend, who is Algerian naturalized French, in his mid 40s, came to France in his 20s for university, has an Algerian wife, is middle class—works in the private sector, as does his wife—, is thoroughly integrated into French society, with house in the suburbs (not far from Disneyland), and all. Moreover, he is a card-carrying member of one of the major French political parties and was a candidate in the last municipal elections in his town. His 13-year-old son—born and raised in middle class suburban Paris—, who is very knowledgeable about soccer, was, of course, all for Algeria. I asked him who he’d be for if Algeria played France. His response (I’m paraphrasing here and the exchange was obviously in French): “Uh, I’d be for Algeria.” Me: “But you’re French and live in France!” Him: “Yes, but I’m Algerian.” Me: “But you’re French too.” Him: “Bah, oui.” Me: “Are you for the Les Bleus too?” Him: “Bien sûr.” Me: “So?” Him: “Je ne sais pas. C’est comme ça. Je suis pour l’Algérie.” Okay, he’s a kid, but there are hundreds of thousands of kids like him in France, or young adults who were kids not too long ago (and not just Algerian but other immigrant origin too). And in all of the French national team’s games—except with Algeria—he will be loudly cheering for France.

Complex this issue. I’ll continue with it in the next post. And will discuss the US too.

Bobby Womack R.I.P.

bobby womack

I listened to him as a kid and teen, in the late ’60s-early ’70s. His best song—and there is likely a consensus on this—was “Across 110th Street”—which got a second life in Quentin Tarantino’s great ‘Jackie Brown’, in one of the greatest ever opening movie scenes (watch here).

Algeria-Russia, Curitiba, June 26th

Algeria-Russia, Curitiba, June 26th

I was absolutely thrilled by Algeria’s qualification for the knockout phase on Thursday night. For the anecdote, I watched the second half of the game in a bar in Bayeux, managing to persuade the barman and sympathique table of Belgian fans—wearing goofy caps with horns and Belgian flags painted on their cheeks—that the Algeria-Russia match was more interesting and with greater stakes than Belgium-South Korea—being played simultaneously—, as Belgium was going to round 16 anyway, so they agreed to flip the channel. I also informed the French in the bar that they should be for Algeria, as the majority of Algerian players are, in fact, Franco-Algerian dual nationals from France, so the Algerian national team may also be seen as the French B team… At the end of the Algeria-Russia game the Belgians all applauded the Algerian qualification and a couple of the French gave me the high five. Sympa….

The Algeria qualification was a lead story in the French media yesterday morning, with the explosion of joy by Franco-Algerians across the country after the game (pics here), acting like Les Verts had won the World Cup final. But not everyone in France is happy about it, or at least for the same reasons. There was the expected bad humor from the extreme right (FN etc), who predictably focused on incidents of vandalism and torching of cars in various cities during the celebrations (which has been going on in this country for over three decades; it’s a permanent phenomenon; it always happens when there’s a pretext for lumpen youths to do so; so what point is one trying to make in fixating on it?). And then there were reactions from non-extreme right commentators, e.g. Le Figaro’s nitwit editorialist Ivan Rioufol, who asserted that “le patriotisme algérien en France révèle l’échec de l’assimilation.” Quel con. Monsieur Rioufol—as with so many others on the right (and some on the left as well) who opine on the subject—has zero understanding of the immigrant experience—in all immigrant populations in France and everywhere in the world, present and past—and the multiple or hybrid identities that ensue from this. And when it comes to Algerians and other post-colonial immigrant-origin populations in France, there is also a considerable mauvaise foi in Rioufol & Co.’s attitude.

To illustrate this, I will recount an exchange I had with a student (French) on precisely November 20th last fall, in one of the Master’s level courses I teach at the Catholic University here. It was the day after the French national team’s stunning victory against Ukraine, that (unexpectedly) qualified Les Bleus for the World Cup tournament in Brazil, and with the game happening at the same moment as the Algeria-Burkina Faso playoff—which Algeria won, thereby earning the ticket to Brazil as well. And, as it happened, Portugal also qualified for Brazil that evening, winning its playoff against Sweden. So there were celebrations on the Champs-Elysées that night after the games, of fans of all three winning teams waving flags of the three countries. My very right-wing student—who was not FN but not far from it; and, as I learned, had been an activist in the anti-gay marriage movement several months earlier—brought up the incidents of vandalism and arson (hugely exaggerated by hard right websites) and expressed indignation at the waving of Algerian flags by youths who were certainly born and raised in France. I responded to this by asking him about all the Portuguese-French fans who waved Portuguese flags during the celebration, adding that in my banlieue—where there is a significant Portuguese community—Portuguese flags hang from windows when the Portuguese national team plays a game, and that when it’s Portugal vs. France—as happened in the semifinal in both the Euro 2000 and 2006 World Cup—, these fans root for Portugal against France, and that this includes members of the second generation, who are full French citizens, so what does he have to say about that? The student’s response: “Ah, but that’s not the same thing…” Me: “Oh, really? So it’s okay for a French citizen of Portuguese parentage to wave a Portuguese flag but not okay for a French citizen of Algerian origin to wave an Algerian flag? Please explain.” The student: “Behind the Algerian flag are revendications…” Me (surprised): “Revendications? What revendications?” The student would not or could not say. And he clearly did not want to continue the exchange. I invited him to elaborate on what he said in a future class, to do a short presentation on it, which we would then discuss as a class, but he manifestly wasn’t interested in my proposition.

Total French right-wing mauvaise foi. And on this, I don’t imagine I would have received a more elaborate or sophisticated response from Ivan Rioufol. The French right has a problem with the presence of Muslims in France and doesn’t know how to think about Algeria, Algerians, or the Algerian war—or about France’s colonial past more generally. And this mentality is clearly being transmitted down the generations, at least in the more politicized portion of the hard right.

As it happens, the CRIF saw fit to publish Rioufol’s commentary on its website. This is lamentable. What point does the CRIF wish to make here? Rhetorical question: If Israel had qualified for the World Cup, finished in the top two in its group, and thereby proceeded to the knockout phase, would not there not be celebrations by French Jews and who would proudly wave the Israeli flag? Poser la question c’est y répondre…

What on earth is wrong with individuals having multiple or hybrid national identities? What’s the big deal? E.g. the big pro-Israel march in Paris on April 7, 2002 (along Bd Voltaire, from République to Nation)—which I attended as a spectator—, was a sea of French and Israeli flags (and in equal proportion). Absolutely no one in the French political or media mainstream expressed disapproval of this display of multiple national identities on the part of the marchers—and whose ranks included high-profile politicians from the right, center, and left, who came to express solidarity with the Jewish community and Israel at the height of second Intifada (those I remember seeing: Alain Madelin, Claude Goasguen, Pierre Lellouche, François Bayrou, Corinne Lepage, Jean-Marie Le Guen, Julian Dray). Rhetorical question: So if it’s okay for Jews, why not for Muslims too?

Nouvel Obs columnist Bruno Roger-Petit has a fine commentary (June 27th) on the celebrations following the Algeria-Russia game, which he says were “un formidable pied de nez aux réacs.” And Laurent Dubois had an equally fine essay in January (which I just read, h/t Muriam HD) on the Roads & Kingdoms blog, “Afro-Europe in the World Cup.”

Though I’m pleased that Algeria has qualified for round 16, I will not be rooting for Les Verts to beat Germany on Monday, as this will—assuming that France defeats Nigeria in that day’s earlier match-up—set up an Algeria-France quarterfinal, which is to be avoided at all costs, not because of what will happen on the field but off it—in the cities and banlieues of France. The hybrid/multiple identities will brutally clash and with a certain deleterious political fallout. An Algeria-France World Cup match is not in the higher interests of the French polity or French society. So Algeria needs to lose to Germany with honor, allowing for a (logical) France-Germany face-off in the quarterfinal.

Paris, June 27th © Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

Paris, June 27th © Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

I was also pleased with the outcome of the Germany-USA game on Thursday—which I watched at the aforementioned Bayeux bar earlier in the evening, packed with Americans—plus that of Ghana-Portugal, thereby allowing Team USA to proceed to the knockout phase and in second place. Had the Americans defeated Germany to finish first in the group, this would have set up an eventual France-USA quarterfinal—and with me being for France against the USA, a position I would rather not find myself in. So now Team USA will face off against the Belgian Red Devils on Tuesday. I will be favoring the former.

After the game I saw a “commentary” by the wacky right-wing bloviator-entertainer Ann Coulter, in which she says that “growing interest in soccer a sign of nation’s moral decay.” It reads like a parody of an Ann Coulter column. Numerous Facebook friends posted it and with indignant comments but I thought it was hilarious, as it’s so wildly over-the-top that it can’t be serious. Ms. Coulter cannot possibly believe what she’s saying. It has to be tongue-in-cheek: click bait written with the expressed purpose of getting liberals all worked up and talking about her. But there is, of course, the possibility that the unhinged Coulter is 100% serious and is seriously throwing red meat to her numerous right-wing fans. If so, the intellectual depravity of the American right is even worse than I thought.

Cheering Team USA against Ghana at Jack Demsey's, New York City, June 16th  (photo credit: Getty)

Cheering Team USA against Ghana at Jack Demsey’s, New York City, June 16th
(photo credit: Getty)

Portugal-USA, Manaus, June 22nd

Portugal-USA, Manaus, June 22nd

Team USA played one great game last night! Too bad about the Portuguese goal in the final seconds, as the Americans deserved to win it. Everyone was impressed with their performance, which is to say, my friends—Facebook and those who sent me text messages when it was over (1:50 am local time)—and the French commentators on beIN Sports. The USA is now definitely in the elite of international soccer. And they have the respect to go with it. Such has, in fact, been the case with sports commentators in France since the 2002 World Cup, when Team USA went to the quarterfinals. I distinctly remember one of the TV announcers back then exclaiming, in regard to Team USA’s soccer style, “J’adore ces Américains!” And another approvingly observing that the reason the Americans had upped their game was that they were now “playing like Europeans”: with “opportunism” and “cynicism”…

And then there was this commentary by Aimé Jacquet, the beloved coach of France’s 1998 World Cup team, in Le Monde dated June 22, 2002 (he had a column in Le Monde’s daily World Cup supplement during the tournament that year)

Dans chaque Coupe du monde, il y a des révélations. Cette 17e édition n’échappe pas à la règle, et bouleverse même de façon extraordinaire un ordre peut-être trop vite établi. La participations aux quarts de finale de la Turquie, du Sénégal, mais surtout des Etats-Unis et de la Corée du Sud, confirme que le fossé entre les «petits» et les «grands» n’existe plus. Pas plus qu’un complexe dont souffriraient ces nations qualifiées d’inférieures.

Pour autant, ne tirons pas de conclusions hâtives: les Etats-Unis ne sont pas devenus un plus grand pays de football que l’Italie, par exemple. La vérité de ce Mondial asiatique n’est qu’une photographie du moment. Pour ma part, je ne peux que me réjouir du parcours de ces quatre équipes. Il est indispensable, pour que le football reste vivant et attractif, d’assister à cette petite révolution. (…)

… Pour moi, [les Etats-Unis] ont réussi un coup. Pour commencer, une victoire (3-2) face au Portugal, l’un des favoris de la compétition. Après ce déclic, un nul face à une Corée malheureuse ce jour-là, avant de trébucher lourdement face à la Pologne, pourtant dernière du groupe. Leur succès en huitièmes de finale, face au Mexique peu inspiré, est leur deuxième coup. Cette équipe s’appuie sur sa force athlétique et s’applique méthodiquement à empêcher l’adversaire de jouer. De plus, les hommes de Bruce Arena bénéficient d’une réussite maximale devant le but et les deux attaquants Landon Donovan et Brian McBride font preuve d’un opportunisme tout à fait étonnant.

Ces quatre formations ne doivent leur bon parcours qu’à elles-mêmes. Elles ont eu le mérite d’être présentes dès le premier jour. Le Sénégal, les Etats-Unis, ont en commun d’avoir battu d’entrée deux grosses cylindrées, respectivement la France et le Portugal. Pour son entrée, la Turquie a fait jeu égal avec le Brésil et n’a été battue que par le talent des individualités sud-américaines. Une entame qui a placé les joueurs dans des conditions psychologiques idéales. Enfin, si la Turquie, la Corée du Sud, les Etats-Unis et le Sénégal en sont là, c’est que, à la grande différence des grandes nations européennes, elles ne sont pas aspirées par les compétitions. Au contraire, elles n’aspirent qu’à en disputer.

One of the nice things about the American team is that they’re sympathique. They play collectively and don’t flop, dive, or act like assholes on the field. In the USA victory over Mexico in the 2002 round 16, the Mexican players behaved so odiously—as if they could not bear the prospect of losing to the Americans—that we were extra satisfied that they did indeed lose. And in the 2006 group game against Italy—which ended in a tie—, those chez moi who were watching—and which included a militant in an extreme left party—started out for Italy but by the second half were cheering for Team USA, as the Italians were such assholes. And the Portuguese last night were hardly sympa. So good for Team USA. Here’s hoping they go to at least the quarterfinals, if not the semis.

But I do hope they don’t beat Germany on Thursday and finish first in Group G, as that will set up an eventual France-USA in the quarterfinals, which I absolutely do not want. Let Thursday’s game end in a tie, so USA takes second.

John Cassidy has a post up (June 23rd) on The New Yorker web site, “The day America fell in love with the World Cup.”

And then there was yesterday’s Algeria-South Korea, which I watched with some ten enthusiastic (understatement) Algeria fans. Great to see Les Fennecs finally win a World Cup game—and decisively—after their unfortunate experience in 1982. Now the Algerian nation can finally put that one that behind it and move on.

In view of the insipid Belgium-Russia match (zzzzzzzz), one cannot exclude a first place Algerian finish in Group H. On verra jeudi.

Algeria-South Korea, Porto Alegre, June 22nd

Algeria-South Korea, Porto Alegre, June 22nd

France-Switzerland, Salvador, June 20th

France-Switzerland, Salvador, June 20th

France-Switzerland: What an amazing game! Five f—ing goals scored by Les Bleus—and by five different players—and against a good team to boot! Haven’t seen that kind of performance by Les Bleus in a long time (okay, there was that little victory against Ukraine last November…). The French national team is definitely back—and will definitely have regained the esteem of the French public—, even after/if it is eliminated in the knockout phase of the tournament.

On the subject of l’équipe de France, historian Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, who works in the US Department of State’s Office of the Historian, had a post on June 17th on TNR’s Goal Posts blog, “French revival? Five story lines to watch during Les Bleus’ next matches.” As it happens, Dr. Krasnoff published a book in 2012 on the formation of players for the French national teams in soccer and basketball, The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. I haven’t seen it yet but am sure it’s a good, informative read.

Another recent, English-language scholarly type book on Les Bleus is Duke University history and French prof Laurent Dubois’s Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, published in 2011 by the University of California Press. I haven’t seen this one either but in view of Dr. Dubois’s fine Soccer Politics/The Politics of Football blog, am sure it’s tops.

On the Swiss team and its multiethnic character—which I mentioned in my previous World Cup post—, journalist Jérôme Houard has an interesting piece in Slate.fr, “La «Nati» suisse, une équipe unie par sa diversité” (June 20th).

Some Tweet-length comments on games of the past few days that I’ve seen in part or whole:

Brazil-Mexico: What an intense, tension-filled game! Whoever said scoreless ties couldn’t be exciting?!

Colombia-Ivory Coast: Too bad for Les Éléphants. Hope they whack the Greeks to advance.

England-Uruguay: Tough for the English, what to say? I would have liked to see them advance. Hélas.

Costa Rica-Italy: Wow, Costa Rica is for real! Whoda thunk it?

Ecuador-Honduras: Bof.

I unfortunately missed Chile-Spain and Australia-Netherlands. On Spain’s crashing out, I know how the Spaniards feel. We in France were there in 2002 and 2010 (though Les Bleus were eliminated in the third group games in those, not the second…).

making_lesbleus

9780520269781

isis-militants-wave-a-flag-in-iraq-data

In my post of three days ago on the Iraq catastrophe, I made two simple comments/assertions. I want to make a third: ISIS won’t attack Baghdad, let alone take the city, and certainly not Najaf or Karbala. They may be crazy but they’re not that crazy. A fourth comment/assertion tant que j’y suis: In the hypothetical event that ISIS does pose a serious threat to Baghdad or to Iraq’s oil sector, the US will intervene—with bombers, drones, even some troops. The pressure on Obama to do so will be overwhelming—and there is no way that he will sit by while all of Iraq becomes a mega-terrorist state. Point barre.

Here are some worthy articles I’ve read over the past few days:

On a website called PandoDaily, the self-styled “war nerd” Gary Brecher—which may or may not be a nom de plume—has an interesting and original analysis (June 16th) telling you “everything you need to know about ‘too extreme for Al Qaeda’ I.S.I.S.” (h/t Dwayne W.).

Iraqi sociologist Sami Ramadani, who lectures at London Metropolitan University—and was a refugee from the Saddam Hussein regime—, has a fine and salutary tribune (June 16th) in The Guardian on “The sectarian myth of Iraq.” The lede: We coexisted peacefully for centuries, and need neither brutal dictators nor western intervention.

Scott Long, who has worked on human rights in MENA for many years—and notably on LGBT issues for Human Rights Watch—has a post (June 16th) on his blog on “ISIS in Iraq: Real atrocities and easy fantasies” (h/t Adam S.).

Posting on The New Yorker website (June 17th), Lawrence Wright examines “ISIS’s savage strategy in Iraq.”

Writing in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on analysis (June 16th) in which he asks “Who lost Iraq?” The lede: That depends on whether you ever thought it could be won.

Also writing in Foreign Policy (June 17th), Georgetown University doctoral student Nick Danforth correctly informs the reader that “There is no al-Sham.” The lede: Militants in Iraq and Syria are trying to re-create a nation that never existed.

In his piece Danforth links to an article he wrote for The Atlantic last September, in which he very correctly tells people to “Stop blaming colonial borders for the Middle East’s problems.” The lede for that one: Plenty of other countries have “artificially drawn” borders and aren’t fighting. Here’s the real problem with Europe’s legacy in the region.

À suivre.

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