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 team 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.