Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

The Immaculate Reception

[update below]

All minimally informed persons, including those with a minimal interest in soccer, know that last Sunday’s France-Argentina game is unanimously considered to have been the greatest final in the history of the World Cup, indeed one of the greatest high-stakes games ever in the history of the sport. In regard to sports superlatives, today so happens to be the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest, and certainly most famous, plays in the history of America’s National Football League, immortalized in memory as The Immaculate Reception. The game was the divisional playoff of the NFL’s American Football Conference (the World Cup equivalent of a quarterfinal), between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders. With the Raiders up by one point, 7-6, in the closing seconds of the game and what would be its final play, Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a desperation pass, which, not caught by the targeted receiver, ricocheted into the arms of fullback Franco Harris, who ran the ball into the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown—and a 13-7 victory for the Steelers. It was an incredible end to the game—watch it on YouTube here—and an exhilarating one if you were for the Steelers. The reaction in Pittsburgh was almost like that in Buenos Aires after the penalty shootout last Sunday. The Steelers thus went on to face the Miami Dolphins in the AFC championship the following Sunday, which they lost (the Dolphins, undefeated that season, were destined to win the Super Bowl that year).

I was reminded of The Immaculate Reception with the announcement of the untimely death of Franco Harris three days ago, on December 20. Harris, who was a rookie at the time of his famous Reception, went on to an illustrious career with the Steelers over the subsequent eleven seasons. He was one of the great running backs of his era and is, at present, the NFL’s 15th all-time leader in rushing yards. He was also a cool, sympathetic guy, so I and many others thought. One thing that made him stand out off the football field was his being mixed race—Black father & Italian mother, met and married in Italy while the father served there during the war—which wasn’t too common in the America of the time (interracial couples are more numerous nowadays but still not nearly what one sees in France). Harris’s racial heritage and stature as local hero led to relative interracial good feelings in Pittsburgh after The Immaculate Reception, with Blacks and Whites being friendly in public with each other (I remember news reports on this at the time), which was decidedly out-of-the-ordinary in working class cities like Pittsburgh. Harris was also a Democratic Party supporter and political progressive (e.g. see here), which was definitely out-of-the-ordinary for football players with known political views or partisan identities, who heavily lean Republican. American football is almost by its very nature a right-wing sport, but that’s a whole other subject.

The main reason I’m writing on this Golden Anniversary of The Immaculate Reception is because I saw it, on television of course. I watched the entire game, from beginning to end, on that cold, overcast December 23, 1972, Saturday afternoon (I was living in Chicago, which is 650 km due west from Pittsburgh, where the game was played). I had become a Steelers fan that year, having a curious identification with Pittsburgh, a (then) polluted industrial city I had never been to, probably because my mother was born in nearby Canonsburg and grew up in mill towns in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, so there was a reflexive affinity there. And when it came to football, I always reflexively supported Rust Belt teams over Sunbelt ones. The Steelers also had a winning season that year for the first time in almost ten, and would become the dominant NFL team of the 1970s. It was a great team indeed, with a colorful cast of excellent players, an awesome defense, and which would win four Super Bowls in the course of the decade.

Today is also the 47th anniversary, give or take five days, of another famous NFL play (and which I also saw, on TV): Roger Staubach’s Hail Mary pass in the closing seconds of the Dallas Cowboys-Minnesota Vikings NFC divisional playoff on December 28, 1975, which gave Dallas the victory (and popularized the expression ‘Hail Mary pass‘ in the process). See it on YouTube here. Amazing play.

UPDATE: On the subject of great games in the history of the NFL, the 55th anniversary of another one is coming up next weekend, the December 31, 1967, ‘Ice Bowl’ in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which I of course saw and wrote an AWAV post on some nine years ago. This was truly one for the ages.

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What an incredible game! One for the ages. Such is the unanimous consensus among media commentators, veteran sports analysts, ordinary fans, and casual spectators for whom the World Cup final is the only soccer match they will likely watch to the end, but had decided to root for one side or the other—e.g. those weighing in on my running Facebook comments thread during the game—and who all spoke of it in superlatives: Great game! Excellent game! Totally insane! et j’en passe. Commentators with historical knowledge have likewise been unanimous in calling it the greatest final in World Cup history—since the advent of color television at least, as one specified—if not the greatest soccer game ever. I don’t know about that one, though all can agree that it was an extraordinary game between two great, evenly matched teams and with each one as deserving to win as the other.

The first two-thirds of the match were not particularly thrilling if one was supporting France, it should be said, with Argentina dominating from the outset. It was frustrating, when not painful, to watch Les Bleus’ ineffectual performance, unable to pose any kind of threat to La Albiceleste to almost the 70th minute. The Argentines were coasting to victory and the French to humiliating defeat, but then there was the penalty in the 80th minute and converted by Mbappé, followed by his spectacular goal a minute later to equalize the score at 2-2—two goals in a mere minute doesn’t happen very often—completely upending the game and giving the hundreds of millions of spectators around the world the most exciting, heart-stopping 50 minutes of high-stakes fútbol they are ever likely to see.

The game was, of course, settled with the penalty shootout—and with Argentina inevitably winning it. American commenters felt that the shootout was an anticlimactic, unsatisfying end to the game but I considered it logical, as the only way to settle a tie after 120 minutes of play, when the players are physically exhausted and at heightened risk of injury. I was disappointed by the outcome but not devastated—certainly less than I was after the 2006 final against Italy—given that, to repeat myself, each side deserved to win. Also, the Argentinians—players and people—wanted so badly to win, to end the Argentinian National Team’s 32-year drought—whereas France is/was reigning world champions. The scenes of jubilation in Buenos Aires are on a whole other level of magnitude from those here in France when we won in 2018. If winning this trophy makes the masses in Argentina happy—as they haven’t had much to celebrate in recent times—I can accept losing the game with honor.

I’ve probably been wasting my time writing the above, as anyone reading this no doubt saw the game or heard about it afterward. With the World Cup now over, there is plenty to write about or link to in regard to its bilan, geopolitical fallout, and the like. I am going to offer here one piece, on the multiracial character of the French national team and the French extreme right, by one of my favorite political analysts in the French media, Thomas Legrand, in his column in today’s Libération:

Le billet de Thomas Legrand

Le parcours des Bleus à la Coupe du monde claque le bec aux identitaires

Ce qu’a réalisé le groupe de Didier Deschamps, finaliste, confirme l’organisation française de nos sports collectifs – des clubs amateurs structurés par les fédérations et subventionnés par les municipalités – et vient invalider les théories des déclinistes de droite.

par Thomas Legrand

publié le 19 décembre 2022 à 8h30

En tant qu’éditorialiste bien-pensant, porte-plume de la cléricature bobo, adepte du politiquement correct, voix autorisée du journal post-soixante-huitard, wokophile libéral libertaire, islamogauchiste, droit-de-l’hommiste, écolo punitif, je ne peux pas résister, après ce magnifique parcours des Bleus, à enfoncer le clou gauchiasse, à tirer un puissant péno de journalope dans la lucarne des déclinistes réacs et autres aboyeurs de la fachosphère, polarisateurs des chaînes bollorisées : la France des immigrés, la France des banlieues, la France diverse, joyeuse et confiante a montré sa cohésion et sa puissance.

Ou bien je suis aussi assez tenté, en tant qu’éditorialiste mainstream, suppôt du capitalisme, chien de garde du système postcolonial, universaliste-patriarcal-blanc-hétérosexuel-cisgenre, porte-plume d’un journal perfusé par un multimilliardaire cynique et carboné, de canarder au fond des filets des indigénistes décoloniaux, des différentialistes victimaires, en affirmant que la belle équipe de France «racisée aux deux tiers» n’a, en réalité, brillé que de son bleu commun.

Conjonction particulière

Certes, le principe même de tirer des enseignements sociologiques ou politiques de la prestation de 22 types en short et d’un entraîneur plus stratège que les autres est certainement abusif. L’analyse la plus évidente, qui ne devrait souffrir aucune contestation, est parfaitement désidéologisée. L’extraordinaire bilan des Bleus de ces dernières années est le résultat d’une conjonction particulière : un entraîneur fin tacticien, DRH de génie qui aura su favoriser un esprit de cohésion. On peut aussi pointer la particularité du système de formation sportive français. Pendant des décennies, l’absence de culture sportive en milieu scolaire était pointée par les sportologues des tous poils pour expliquer nos piètres résultats en sport-co. Mais que ce soit en handball, en basket, en volley et, depuis un peu plus d’un an, en rugby, les Bleus de toutes ces disciplines sont sur le podium. Notre faiblesse sportive scolaire est finalement très avantageusement suppléée par le système de clubs amateurs structurés par les fédérations et subventionnés par les municipalités. Les centres de formation en foot ou en rugby, les politiques de détection fonctionnent et donnent maintenant leurs fruits dans les compétitions internationales.

Il n’est sans doute pas la peine d’aller beaucoup plus loin dans l’analyse. On peut se contenter de constater qu’une politique française à la fois publique et privée, associative et commerciale, fonctionne.

Cohésion naturelle

Mais c’est très tentant – et je cède à cette tentation de profiter du parcours enthousiasmant des Bleus, de l’engouement populaire et massif des Français, pour desserrer un peu la mâchoire identitaire. Si le onze de France s’était vautré dès les poules, les identitaires de droite, les névrosés du «grand remplacement»auraient expliqué qu’aucune cohésion n’était possible avec une équipe de racailles multiethniques (ils nous ont fait le coup en 2010) alors que les décoloniaux – beaucoup moins nombreux et quasiment sans relais médiatiques, convenons-en – auraient pointé le manque de soutien pour une équipe racisée, et un racisme structurel des instances footballistiques (ils nous ont fait le coup quand Karim Benzema n’était pas sélectionné).

Rien de tout ça. Dans une France que certains réacs décrivent comme étant au bord de la «guerre civile», archipelisée, la cohésion des 22 Français de tous horizons est possible et semble même naturelle. La France populaire, c’est-à-dire, en grande partie, la France des cités, celle qui joue au foot, est forte. De même, la France du rugby, celle qui mélange accents du Sud-Ouest et de Seine-Saint-Denis, qui réunit ruraux et citadins, censée être divisée comme jamais, n’a jamais été aussi prête à soulever la coupe Webb Ellis à l’automne prochain, celle des champions du monde.

If one missed it, the NYT had a lengthy portrait in September of France’s soccer superstar: “Kylian Mbappé is coming for it all: In a rare interview, the French soccer star discussed chasing the Champions League title, supplanting his teammate Lionel Messi as world player of the year and the possibility of a move to Real Madrid.” Though Mbappé has never lived or played in an Anglophone country, his spoken English is very good. Impressive.

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The Qatar World Cup – II

This post is not about the France-Argentina dream final, which begins in a couple of hours as I write, and about which I will likely have something to say after it’s over. I want to return here, while it’s still de l’actualité, to the exceptional run of the Moroccan national team, which, to borrow the expression, captured the imagination of the world and thrilled countless hundreds of millions. The run of course came to an end in last Wednesday’s semifinal, with the defeat by France, and which was followed by the loss to Croatia in yesterday’s third place consolation game. But peu importe, the Moroccan team is returning home as heroes—in Morocco and further afield.

There have been some excellent instant analyses in English of the phenomenon over the past week by social scientists, which will be of interest to all interested persons, including to social scientifically-inclined AWAV readers who have little to no interest in soccer or the World Cup.

First, I am relinking to the terrific essay, added as an update in the previous AWAV post, by Hisham Aïdi, Senior Lecturer at SIPA Columbia University, “The (African) Arab Cup,” on the excellent blog Africa Is a Country. The lede: “Morocco’s World Cup heroics are forging a new, dissident Third-World solidarity, reflecting the multifaceted nature of Moroccan identity itself: simultaneously Arab, African, and Amazigh.” Everyone on social media who has linked to Aïdi’s essay has referred to it with superlatives. If one has the slightest interest in or curiosity about the general subject, do read it.

Other essays:

A postcolonial World Cup showdown for the ages: Seven scholars share their thoughts on today’s Morocco-France World Cup semifinal,” in political science MENA specialist Marc Lynch’s well-known blog, Abu Aardvark’s MENA Academy (Dec.14). Marc, a professor at George Washington University, invited me to contribute to the symposium but I was occupied with writing my last AWAV post. The contributions are worth the read, particularly the one by anthropologist Paul Silverstein.

In the New York Times (Dec. 14), “Morocco has given the Arab world something to cheer for again,” by Issandr El Amrani, the Amman-based Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa at Open Society Foundations.

In The Atlantic (Dec.14), “The ultimate postcolonial derby: Morocco and France meet in a historic showdown with deep significance for fans of both teams,” by anthropologist Laurent Dubois, of the University of Virginia. I have learned much over the years from Dubois’ social scientific writings on soccer. He also had a guest essay in the NYT (Dec. 10), “Another France is possible. Look at its World Cup team.”

In The Markaz Review (Dec. 15), “Everyone has a stake in Morocco’s football team,” by Brahim El Guabli and Aomar Boum, brilliant scholars both, who teach at Williams College (comparative literature) and UCLA (anthropology), respectively.

El Guabli and Boum evoke, entre autres, the colonial legacy in the relationship between Morocco and France, which has been a lietmotif in commentary in the West on the semifinal meeting between the two. Too much has been made of this IMO. Tahar Ben Jelloun, in his fine Dec. 15 tribune in Le Monde, clarified the matter:

The relationship between [Morocco and France] is a common one, based on friendship and respect. Morocco was a protectorate [i.e. not a colony] from 1912 to 1956. It is a different picture [from] the one of neighboring Algeria. Morocco has no grudge against France, and no debt from history to live from.

The French presence in Morocco was rather light and, thanks to Marshal of France Hubert Lyautey (the resident-general in Morocco between 1912 and 1925), respectful of the values of traditional Moroccan society.

El Guabli and Boum make this important observation:

The Qatar World Cup has also revealed the importance of the land where the cup is organized in determining the outcome and favoring some teams while disfavoring others. Particularly, Morocco has been playing while being supported by thousands of Moroccan, Arab, and Muslim fans, who would have needed visas and financial clout to make the trip to any Euro-American country. This alone is further reason to question the choice to continue organizing the competition in countries that have strict visa requirements and whose cost of living is higher than what football fans from the Global South can afford.

The question of visas, of the ability—or, rather, impediments, or non-ability—to travel to Europe and North America by passport-holders from the Global South, is a source of resentment and animosity by citizens of countries in the latter toward the West, and the principal one by those of former French colonies/protectorates—far more than narratives over colonial legacies—toward France. This is an important subject and to which I will soon return, as there is little awareness of it in the West.

For the record, there were no problems in France after the France-Morocco match on Wednesday, at least not from Maghreb-origin youths. My fears on this score were unfounded, as my friend Ouali (see previous post) insisted to me. I am happy to have been wrong.

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The Qatar World Cup

Morocco vs Spain, 6 December 2022 (Photo credit: Javier Soriano/AFP)

[update below]

This is my first post on the 2022 World Cup, which has been underway for the past three weeks, if one didn’t know, with 61 games played so far and just three to go. I’ve watched most of them, in part or in whole, though am not a fervent soccer aficionado by any means, being a relative latecomer in life to the sport. A pure product of American sports culture—baseball, basketball, (American) football—I was not interested in soccer growing up—boys in the 1960s/1970s Midwest didn’t play it—and partook in the then typical (and ignorant) American disdain for the sport—seeing soccer as a stupid game of 11 guys kicking a ball across a field to a scoreless tie. How boring. (To any American who still sees soccer that way—and thinks that it’s too low-scoring—I doubt he would continue to had he watched the England-USA group stage match on Nov. 25, which ended in a scoreless tie; what an exciting, high-octane game!).

My attitude evolved after moving to France in the 1990s, and above all with the 1998 World Cup, when I started to follow international soccer competition and became a fan of the French national team. I do not, however, watch the professional clubs or pay close attention to the Champions League. You have to grow up with that. The history, sociology, and politics of soccer interest me as much as the actual game itself—the complex technical side of which I rely on friends (notably Algerian) to educate me on—which one may gather from my ten posts on the 2014 tournament and three on the 2018 one.

The politics have obviously been important in the current tournament, with the outrage of it being hosted by Qatar—a subject I took up in posts in 2013 and 2014. There have been numerous enquêtes and reportages in the media over the past two or three months on the multifaceted Qatari World Cup scandal. I haven’t felt the need to read them, though, as the story has been well-known from the outset:

  • The massive corruption, with briefcases of cash and all, employed by Qatar to bribe FIFA members, governments, and whoever else needed to be paid off in order for the Emir to best the bids of rival candidates, who were far more logical choices to organize the event (Australia, USA),
  • Awarding the tournament to an artificial petrostate with a population of 1.8 million (at the time of the award), but with the portion of actual citizens around 10% of that, and having no soccer tradition. Qatar can field an international team only by importing players from Africa and naturalizing them.
  • Qatar is, as one knows, one of the hottest places on earth, with temperatures in June-July—traditional World Cup months, during the professional offseason in Europe—reaching 50°C/120°F and humid. One does not go outside in such weather. This was not a consideration when the award was announced. The event would clearly have to be moved to November-December, disrupting the regular season of the European leagues.
  • The quasi slave labor conditions of the migrant workers—most from South Asia—recruited en masse to build everything. Some 6,500 workers (probably a conservative estimate) have died over the past decade.
  • The ecological calamity of the pharaonic-scale construction and infrastructure projects, air conditioning of the eight new stadiums, the fifty-fold (or whatever it is) increase in air traffic in and out of Doha, et j’en passe.
  • The obscenity of spending $220 billion on a one-month sports tournament. And building eight stadiums, all within 55 km of the others, is the height of folly. Qatar will be looking at white elephants on a heretofore unseen scale.
  • And then there’s the mauvaise foi of the Emir and his entourage, reflected in the banning of beer two days before the tournament began, though the decision had without doubt been taken well before that, if not at the very outset. But if it had been announced during the bidding process that this would be a dry World Cup, Qatar would not have been awarded the event. Obviously.

Despite the scandal of Qatar—above all, the migrant worker deaths—I was not about to join the boycott—of not watching the games on television—that some on the left in France and elsewhere in Europe called for (people who wouldn’t have watched the World Cup regardless). Not a chance, particularly as the French national team has remained second to none and with a better-than-even chance of winning the trophy for the second time in a row (a feat last achieved by Brazil in 1962). As it happens, I was in the US (North Carolina) during the group phase and round of 16 (visiting my mother), so saw more of the tournament than I would have here in France, as all the games are on Fox, which is in the standard cable package—whereas in France, 36 of the 64 are/were on the subscription-only (Qatari-owned) beIN Sports—and, with the 8-hour time difference between Doha and EST, were at convenient times (for those who don’t have to go to work in the morning).

I’m not going to give my take on the tournament up to now and the performance of this or that team, which wouldn’t be interesting. Just a comment or two on three teams. First, France, which is my main interest. I don’t think anyone thought Les Bleus would ignominiously crash out in the group phase, as they did in 2002 and 2010, and they sure didn’t, coasting to easy wins against Australia and Denmark. As for the 1-0 loss to Tunisia, it was no big deal, as the Bleus had already qualified for the knockout stage and were playing their bench (and against a Tunisian team that really wanted to win). Poland in the 16 was no problem and England in the QF last Saturday, while close to the end, was never not in hand (thanks to that second penalty). A great game by two great teams! Second, the USMNT, which is now in the top tier of international soccer and can realistically dream of going all the way in the next World Cup (which will, moreover, be co-hosted by the US). For the first time ever I found myself cheering loudly (in my mother’s TV room) for Team USA, in the match against Iran, in which I was admittedly motivated in part by politics. As I explained on Facebook on Nov. 29:

In the 1998 Iran-USA group match I was for Iran, as the US team was lousy and Americans didn’t care about the World Cup, whereas the game meant so much to the Iranian people (who were/are not at all anti-American; they’re quite the opposite), and there was a sentiment of hope in Iran at the time with the election of Khatami the previous year. The context today is obviously different, both politically and sporting-wise. The Iranian people in the streets demonstrating against the regime are divided on the national team, so it has been reported, and you just know that if it beats the US and moves on to the knockout phase, the victory will be appropriated by the regime and with the players – out of fear or threats for many among them – dutifully falling into line. It would also be a shame if the US team, which is now good, were eliminated at this early stage.

I predicted that Team USA would defeat the Netherlands in the 16 and move on to the quarterfinal (where it would be shown the door by Argentina), but, alas, the Dutch won easily. Better luck in ’26.

The third team is, of course, Morocco and its Atlas Lions, who have stunned and thrilled the world with their utterly unexpected march to tomorrow’s semifinal, slaying Belgium, Spain, and Portugal along the way. To say that the entire Arab world and Africa—don’t even talk about Morocco itself—is in a state of collective ecstasy over the Moroccan team’s performance would be an understatement. Why, they’re even rooting for the team in Israel! In Algeria, which has broken diplomatic relations with Morocco and forbidden state television to even mention Morocco in its World Cup coverage, the people are at one in supporting the Atlas Lions. In the US, news articles carry headlines like “Indestructible Morocco, the World Cup’s darling,” and inform readers of “The team that U.S. soccer fans should root for now.” The near totality of my Facebook friends, plus those I see on comments threads, are supporting Morocco. Everyone is for the underdog and loves a Cinderella story.

Two articles to read: Journalist Aida Alami (whom I know personally) in Al Jazeera, “World Cup 2022: Why Morocco’s win over Spain means so much to me. We’re used to losing. Morocco’s team is changing that, for the country and the Global South.” And Ishaan Tharoor in The Washington Post, “Morocco’s showdown with France carries complex political baggage.”

I have been as enthusiastic over the Moroccan team as the next person but also nervous that it would, if it kept winning, ultimately meet France in the semifinal—and which is, of course, what has happened. And tomorrow (at 2:00 PM EST). I will still be for Les Bleus, of course, but many in France of Maghreb origin, with their multiple identities, will not. I expressed my nervousness on Facebook, in responding to an Algerian commenter who wrote, before the quarterfinal, that he hoped Morocco would go all the way to the final—implicitly signifying that it would beat France along the way. My reaction led to an exchange with my good friend, Ouali, who’s a Franco-Algerian/Kabyle dual-national, and an early Gen-Xer who came to France in his mid 20s, after his undergraduate years in Algiers. Here’s the exchange, translated from French by DeepL and edited by me, which took place on Dec. 7:

ARUN: If Morocco and France win their next matches [versus Portugal and England, respectively], they will meet in the semi-finals. Such a match is to be viewed with trepidation. All North Africans and Muslims in France will be united with Morocco and against the French team, which will upset many in France. If Morocco wins, there will be an explosion of joy among North Africans, who will celebrate the defeat of France (and on the Champs-Elysées, with the inevitable clashes with the police). If France beats Morocco, there will be the inevitable riots in the banlieues, torched cars, etc. In any case, the reaction among French people (non-Muslim, white) will be very negative. This will be a boon for the RN, Zemmour et al. Given the current political context in France, we really don’t need this.

OUALI: Arun, I am stupified by the ideas that you have exposed on the possible match between Morocco and Les Bleus. Here’s why:

First of all, normally constituted people of sound mind naturally make the distinction between the sporting nationality and French citizenship. No young or not so young person of Maghrebi origin, who is normally constituted and sound of mind, sees the two nationalities as being in contradiction. Young people of North African origin are like any young French person of Italian or Portuguese origin who supports the team of their parents’ country without opposing it to France. It is just stupid to think the opposite. I have a friend of Italian origin born in France who is a fan of the Italian team and doesn’t like Les Bleus at all; likewise for a friend of Portuguese origin.

Why do we get offended when it’s a young person of Algerian or North African origin? It’s pure racism. Besides, the Portuguese community did indeed celebrate on the Champs-Elysées the victory of Portugal over France in the final of the Euro 2016 and nobody raised a finger to accuse the young Franco-Portuguese of being anti France. As for the problem of violence that generally follow these popular celebrations of young people of North African origin, they are not the real supporters of these teams but rather young people of multiple origins (North African, sub-Saharan or other) and who are mostly teenage school drop-outs from the lower class and live in difficult neighborhoods. This phenomenon is not found in the Portuguese or Italian communities, who are already socially and economically integrated into French society due to their long history of immigration and the upward mobility that followed. These two communities are found more in the neighborhoods of Paris 12ème and surrounding banlieues (Vincennes, Nogent-sur-Marne, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, etc.) and not in the 93, the department that is home to the most poor people in France.

Contrary to what you may think, young people of North African origin are on an upward economic trajectory and are successfully integrated into French society: there are millions of them, some are supporters of the Moroccan or Algerian team, and are neither thugs nor anti-French but harmoniously live their citizenship and French nationality while being good supporters of their parents’ country by emotional loyalty, and that is normal. And every democrat understands this except the fascists and the racists.

ARUN: Ouali, I don’t disagree with you and hope to be wrong, but I have in mind the France-Algeria match of October 2001, which shocked many French people (and Algerians in Algeria too). Seeing La Marseillaise and Les Bleus booed by the young people in the Stade de France was difficult to digest. But the collective spirit of the young generation has undoubtedly evolved. I hope so anyway.

As for the Portuguese in France, I know well their soccer loyalties, being a Saint-Maurian. There is certainly a double standard among the French on this.

OUALI: Arun, I know that you don’t disagree with me on these questions because I know well your left-wing positions on these problems, certainly because of your American culture, which is more multiculturalist than nationalist, as can be noticed in France, whose nationalism is very much impregnated by the colonial imaginary.

On the France-Algeria match in 2001, yes, it was a failure in every respect: organizational, sporting and cultural. I think there was a political appropriation of this event that the political and media class willingly overpoliticized out of political calculation and under the pressure of the extreme right. But it was a simple soccer match without any political dimension. Booing Les Bleus and the Marseillaise was first of all an anti-sporting act, therefore condemnable and deplorable, but it had no political significance because the young people who committed this act were undoubtedly de-politicized and with their behavior similar to that of all the fans or ultra supporters found in soccer stadiums, which sports sociologists explain by hooliganism.

The young Franco-Algerians who booed La Marseillaise did it because of their depoliticization and deculturation. On the other hand, the Corsicans who booed La Marseillaise at the Stade de France during the final of the Coupe de France in 2001, and in the presence of Jacques Chirac, was a *highly political act*. But this event was quickly forgotten by the French political and media class and by the French society, which continues to go en masse to Corsica to spend its vacations. Double standards, or selective memory, or rather, the colonial memory in all its delirium, or the Irrational, is prevalent.

The emotional shock provoked by this unfortunate event was rather a political and media orchestration to manipulate minds and consciences. I still remember all the debates that followed this event and all the cowards of the political class who were partly responsible, whether Socialist or right-wing, except for a few left-wing personalities such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who had a rational and above all honest position by saying at the time that it was a simple soccer match and this type of incident is found in other matches in France and elsewhere.

To summarize, there was political manipulation orchestrated by the traditional political class under electoral pressure, i.e. electoral defeat, and by the extreme right which shamefully exploited this sporting event to influence minds and work the consciences, and the French collective imaginary, which was already not in good health.

Voilà Arun, I think I have succeeded in calming your fears and I conclude here by saying that we must stop stigmatizing a social group and simply implement the motto of the Republic: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. But alas, none of these three concepts are applied when it comes to Maghrebi communities. There are, however, millions who succeed, who integrate successfully, and participate in national development. Hence the imperative work of reconciliation that official France must accomplish to guarantee the vivre-ensemble and thus the future of the French nation.

ARUN: Very good, Ouali. And yes, you’ve alleviated my fears a bit 🙃

I have written in some detail on the October 2001 France-Algeria soccer match here, on multiple identities and national sports team loyalties here, and on double standards (mainly, though not exclusively, right-wing) in regard to expressions of multiple identities here.

For the record, it may be noted that over half the players on Morocco’s national team are dual nationals born and/or raised in European countries with large Moroccan immigrant populations (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Italy), and with most playing professionally in Europe. It is likewise with the Algerian and Tunisian national teams, as well as those of Senegal, Ivory Coast, and other former French colonies,

The well-known Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun has a nice tribune in Le Monde today on the upcoming semifinal, in which he concludes with this:

On Wednesday, when the game takes place, we will hold our breath and watch an outstanding game. Whether Les Bleus or the Atlas Lions win, there will be joy and hope for political, diplomatic, and cultural reconciliation.

We worry there could be outbreaks of violence, with some trying to spoil the party. But whoever wins, it will be a great and magnificent celebration, and we keep looking forward to the rest of this World Cup, which is unlike anything we have ever seen..


UPDATE: Hisham Aïdi, a Senior Lecturer at SIPA Columbia University, has an excellent post, “The (African) Arab Cup,” on the Africa Is a Country blog.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

I am presently watching, as I write, the triumphal descent of Les Bleus—who just arrived from Moscow—down the Champs-Élysées in the open top double-decker bus. The crowd—who number in the high six figures, maybe a million, who knows?—is naturally delirious. What a spectacle. After yesterday’s wild-and-crazy final, aptly described by one observer as truly bonkers—if anyone wants to know what I thought of the game as it unfolded, here’s my running Facebook commentary—I went in to Paris to check out the ambiance. La folie furieuse, comme on dit. People were so happy. I took a few short videos, which I tweeted here, here, and here. My wife, who’s down south in Sète, took some pics (here) of the celebrations there. The ‘black-blanc-beur’ thing of ephemeral 1998 fame, which was subject to so much mythologizing, certainly seemed real to me yesterday. The multitudes in Paris—younger rather than older, naturally—were as multiracial/ethnic as you can get in this country, and with everyone so happy and communing together. And as both my wife and I observed, there were far fewer Algerian (and Moroccan, Tunisian etc) flags than in 1998. The young people of Maghrebi origin—not to mention African—were waving the tricolore. It’s a new generation out there, who barely remember 1998, if at all—Kylian Mbappé wasn’t even born—and whose identities are not constructed in the same way as those who are now in their 30s and 40s.

I have more to say and could drone on—for sharp commentary, I refer all to my friend Akram Belkaïd’s blog—but will end this post now, with an open letter to Didier Deschamps by faithful AWAV reader Michel Persitz, who lives in the south of France and goes by the nom de plume Massilian, which he sent me earlier today and that I am taking the liberty of copying-and-pasting

Thank you Didier !

Thank you for resisting all kinds of pressures and having built such a beautiful team of inspiring brilliant young sportsmen who love France, respect the republic and sing the Marseillaise without back thoughts.

Thank you Didier !

Because until late into the night, young people made a great, noisy, joyful, parade on scooters, motorcycles, cars, in the streets of Marseille, waving French flags.

Not so long ago, but with a different coach and a different team, I witnessed noisy parades, with many of the same youth waving Algerian flags because of one stupid demagog brilliant player.

Thank you Didier !

We had the greatest need to teach love of France to our young ones. You showed that hard work, solidarity and fraternity do bring better results than individual egos.

On the other hand, Didier, you gave us a kind of “Französische Mannschaft”, rather cold blooded, solid, very lucid, very technical, very realistic, but whose game aside from occasional brilliant flares of great talent is not that exciting to watch. The contrast with the fiery Croatian, Argentinian, Uruguyan, Belgium teams was striking. Yet I know, they all lost.

I guess you can’t have it all and if I have to choose, considering the benefits for morale of the country, I prefer a winning team. And I do enjoy the perfume of victory. Twenty years ago I was revving up my motorcycle engine and blasting my horn on the Champs-Elysées for the greatest pleasure of my ten years old son screaming and waving his arms behind me.

Football is fine, it is a highly popular sport, but it is only a game. The sudden tsunami that is taking over the country by storm after such a victory and which turns every brave Frenchman into a brilliant, heroic, proud, two-stars Frenchman, amazes me and also scares me a little !

During the world cup, the hazard made me read a book by the great Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999) : “Journal de la guerre au cochon”(1969). I was struck by this sentence : “The strength of demagogues is that they make outcasts aware of their dignity.”

Amitiés triomphales !

Très bien, though I am personally not worried about some future demagogue channeling the collective joy on the streets and squares of France last night, let alone toward nefarious ends.

À propos, the Bleus’ victory has knocked every other story off the news here today. Nothing on the unbelievable Trump-Putin meeting, which is dominating commentary on Facebook and Twitter feeds from people stateside. More on that very soon.

UPDATE: Vox has a six-minute video (July 10th), which is well worth watching, on why “France produces the most World Cup players.” Spoiler alert: it has to do with immigration, but not only.

2nd UPDATE: FT Paris correspondent Simon Kuper has a nice piece (July 18th) in the New Statesman, “A victorious World Cup team made in the multiracial Paris banlieues: Football is the bit of French society where I’ve seen integration work best.”

Kuper has a similar one in Le Monde dated July 19th, “Des terrains de banlieue au stade Loujiniki, une éclatante réussite d’intégration.”

Don’t miss the post (July 12th), by Australian sports sociologist Darko Dukic, on the Run Repeat blog, “Most World Cup talent are born in France (data analysis).”

3rd UPDATE: Everyone is au courant by now (July 20th) of the exchange between Gérard Araud and Trevor Noah, and particularly Noah’s response to the French ambassador, which has gone viral on social media. I found Noah’s response pretty good, but particularly like the reaction on Facebook by my (Indian-born) friend Leela Jacinto, of the English service of France 24

This identity business is so boring! So, the French ambassador could have been a bit more nuanced. But know what, just ask the players & they’ve reiterated, individually, time & again, they’re French. As I’ve snapped at countless clueless, well-meaning folks, ‘I’m not about to be your little brown girl in the ring. I have a US passport, French residency & I feel at home & a stranger anywhere. So stop telling me who I am.’ When I see first-hand how countries in Asia, Mideast, Africa treat their own immigrants/refugees & their diasporas wank on about hyphenated identities, assimilation blah-blah, I see stones pelted from glass houses. The point is, do you have equal rights, face discrimination – that’s the issue. If you know a country, language, culture well for whatever reason, that’s great. But your identity is your own bloody problem, so stop boring me.

À propos, see Zach Beauchamp’s post (July 19th) on Vox, “Trevor Noah’s feud with France over race, identity, and Africa, explained: The feud involves the World Cup, jokes, differing ideas of citizenship, and Noah’s French accent.”

See as well the provocative commentary (July 20th) by Hudson Institute research fellow Benjamin Haddad, who’s French, in The American Interest, “Multiculturalism and the World Cup: Why American liberals celebrating the French team’s ‘Africanness’ are making common cause with Jean-Marie Le Pen.”

4th UPDATE: See the intriguing analysis by Alternatives Économiques journalist Vincent Grimault, posted June 8th on the Alter Éco website—a week before the tournament began—”Pourquoi la France va gagner la Coupe du monde de football (ou presque).” The reason? Because France has a high level of taxation. N.B. the article, it is specified at the end, is “(relativement) sérieux.”

5th UPDATE: Political scientist and public intellectual Yascha Mounk has a typically thoughtful commentary (July 24th) in Slate, “Trevor Noah doesn’t get to decide who’s French.” The lede: “The Daily Show host says his critics in Europe missed the context of his World Cup commentary. But he’s making the same mistake.”

In his piece, Mounk links to one by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, dated July 16th, that I missed, “The French World Cup win and the glories of immigration.”

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Today is Bastille Day, when people here are supposed to feel a little more patriotic than they normally might—and particularly if they watch the parade on the Champs-Élysées—I never miss it myself (on TV)—and then La Marseillaise at the end, which moves me in a way The Star-Spangled Banner never does (and the way things are going stateside, likely never will). Everyone will certainly be feeling more patriotic tomorrow, with Les Bleus meeting Croatia in the World Cup final. Can anyone who is not Croat and maybe Algerian—for whom opposing France is part of the national DNA—possibly be for Croatia and against the excellent and sympathique French team? I was disappointed England didn’t make it, as I was hoping for a France-England final—ça aurait eu de la gueule—but the Croats deserved to win the semifinal. From the 2nd half onward, they were the superior team. C’était ainsi. Needless to say, the level of excitement here—since Les Bleus’ well-merited victory over Belgium on Tuesday—is palpable, possibly even greater than in 1998.

The 20th anniversary of Les Bleus’ glorious victory over Brazil was two days ago, which everyone born before, say, 1988 is recalling and recounting—me, le vieux, to my daughter (who was 4 at the time) and her friends. It was a great team and with players we all got to know and love. And they have not been forgotten, not a single one (not by me, that’s for sure). It was exhilarating being at Place d’Italie after the game (I was living in the 13th) and observing the wild celebrations. People were so happy. Me too. And then there was the mythologizing over the feel-good ‘black-blanc-beur’ team and ‘la France de toutes les couleurs’. It felt real at the time—and I still think there’s reality in it. Not to be un empêcheur de tourner en rond, though, but in recounting le bons vieux temps to the young people, I nonetheless have to say something that few will admit, which is that the broad French public did not, in fact, jump on Les Bleus’ bandwagon in the 1998 tournament—and despite it being played in France—until after the victory over Italy in the quarterfinal (a soporific 0-0 game at the Stade de France that was settled in a penalty shootout—during which I was so anxiety-ridden that I could barely watch). In the round of 16 game against Paraguay five days earlier—also a soporific 0-0 affair, won with Laurent Blanc’s golden goal in the 114th minute, thus avoiding a shootout against the redoubtable Paraguayan goalkeeper—Le Monde described the crowd in the stadium in Lens as “éteint” (it was, admittedly, a hot, sunny afternoon). At a press conference before the quarterfinal, a frustrated Emmanuel Petit said something to the effect of “Come on people, get with us! We need your support!” (I’m recalling this from memory).

The fact is, France has historically not been a big soccer/football country, at least not compared to the rest of Europe. There are reasons for this: the absence of a major Paris team until the 1970s and of two or more first division teams in other cities, and thus derbys and intense local rivalries (based on rival parts of town, ethno-confessional groups, social class; cf. the UK, Italy, Spain, etc); the preeminence of rugby in the southwest and cycling in the west; the past disinterest, indeed disdain, of the bourgeoisie and intellectuals for the game… Even today, French fans do not travel to games in nearly the same numbers as do their European and other counterparts.

But 1998—and the quarterfinal victory—changed all that, when everyone got with the program and Gloria Gaynor. And everyone is with the program today, in 2018 (though not with Gloria Gaynor, as ‘I Will Survive’ is just so 1998).

As for Croatia tomorrow: we met them, if one will recall, in the 1998 semifinal, for which Lilian Thuram will forever be remembered. The last 15 minutes of that one were among the most stressful of my life, with France playing a man down—Laurent Blanc having been sent off with a red card, for a manifest dive by Slaven Bilić—and fending off a relentless Croatian counterattack. C’était chaud. But we held them off and won.

And inshallah, we will again.

Stade de France, July 12 1998

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Antoine Griezmann & Kylian Mbappé,
France-Argentina, Kazan, June 30th (photo: AFP)

[update below] [2nd update below]

The World Cup has now been underway for three weeks but this is only my first post on the tournament, whereas I had ten on the last one, in 2014. I am naturally following this one closely—as I have every World Cup since 1998 (from 1982 to ’94, I only watched the final; before that, I cared not at all about soccer)—but was maybe a little less enthusiastic about it this time, with the absence of soccer powers Italy and the Netherlands, plus other countries that one expects to be there, such as the United States and African powerhouses like Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Cameroon. Too bad none of these qualified, particularly Italy (though I am absolutely not a fan of the Squadra Azzurra). Also disappointing that Team USA was eliminated, in view of the increasing popularity of international soccer in the US (though losing the final qualifying match to Trinidad and Tobago—which is not known for its football prowess—and at home no less, was truly pathetic). Interest in the World Cup is thus down this year in the US, though close to 30% of Americans say they still have some level of interest in the current games, which isn’t bad IMHO.

But the country that mainly interests me is, of course, France, who qualified relatively easily—not having to go to a run-off, as with the last two World Cups, and with near-death experiences—and have played well enough in the group stage (okay, the game against Denmark was a snoozer but we were already qualified for the round of 16). If one had any doubt that Les Bleus have what it takes to go all the way to the final, that was settled with last Saturday’s spectacular victory over Argentina. Now I am not a specialist of soccer/football—I didn’t grow up with the game and do not at all follow league play—so lack the competence to engage in any sort  of commentary on or analysis of the sporting side of it (not that anyone would be interested even if I did). One friend who does possess an impressive knowledge of the subject is Akram Belkaïd of Le Monde Diplomatique, who has had twenty posts on the tournament so far on his blog. The New York Review of Books has also had a running series of essays on the World Cup (and with the latest on the host country Russia).

Back to France and Les Bleus, Rory Smith and Elian Peltier had lengthy piece in the NYT (June 7th), “Kylian Mbappé and the boys from the banlieues.” The lede: “The vast sprawl of suburbs and satellite towns around Paris, disdained by some as a breeding ground for crime and terrorism, is home to the greatest pool of soccer talent in Europe.” Taking up the soccer/banlieue theme from a more academic angle is my friend Paul Silverstein, who teaches anthropology at Reed College, who has a post on the Pluto Press blog, “World Cup summer in postcolonial France.” The lede: “France is a bellwether for postcolonial anxieties and populist politics. Football is the stage wherein these anxieties and politics often play out. In this blog Paul Silverstein, author of Postcolonial France: Race, Islam, and the Future of the Republic, considers how the social and cultural contours of the nation are represented during the 2018 World Cup.” Paul is very smart and knowledgeable but I have a few comments to make on his (jargon-heavy) piece. Maybe later. (N.B. I wrote about the banlieue/immigration aspect in my 2014 series, so am not going to do so again).

A few random comments on the tournament so far, most of the games I’ve watched in whole or part:

Stunning that Germany crashed out in the group stage, and finished last in its group to boot. Doubtful anyone predicted that, particularly after the Mannschaft’s breathtaking victory against Sweden. With that and pathetic Spain’s inglorious defeat by f*cking Russia on Sunday, the bracket is out of whack.

Really disappointed for Egypt and Mo Salah. It would have been nice if they’d at least beaten Saudi Arabia. Also sad for Senegal, which did not deserve its early elimination, particularly after its whacking of Poland.

Portugal-Spain: what a great game! As for Portugal, I’m glad they got knocked out by Uruguay, as I didn’t want to face yet another France-Portugal elimination match (Euro 2000 semi-final, 2006 World Cup semi-final, Euro 2016 final: all stressful and tedious at the same time).

Serbia-Switzerland sure was riveting, not least because of the political and identity issues involved. (I wrote about the multicultural Swiss team in 2014).

Belgium-Japan: what an incredible second half! Great performance by both teams.

Not too impressed with England, who were lucky as hell to advance to the quarterfinals. But I hope they go all the way to the final, where we (Les Bleus) will easily defeat them…

Brazil? Bof. I was hoping Mexico would win that one. Tant pis.

More to follow, after the quarterfinals.

UPDATE:  The excellent Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe, with whom I am normally in 100% agreement on matters Russian (and on most other issues as well), has a piece in The Washington Post (July 2nd) on “Russia’s World Cup win [being] good for Putin [but] Russian dissidents loved it anyway.” The lede: “Beating Spain may make for good propaganda, but it’s also legitimately thrilling.” Nice for the Russians, though one does have to be Russian, or a serious Russophile, to support that country in any team sport, let alone football.

À propos, RFE/RL senior correspondent Peter Baumgartner has an article (June 30th; tweeted by Ioffe d’ailleurs) on the ethnocentrism/racism of Russian soccer, “Russia’s World Cup team bucks multiethnicity seen on Swiss, other teams,” which is one reason, among many others, why I can only hope Russia loses. Always. It begins

While there is a splash of ethnic diversity on virtually every team playing in soccer’s 2018 Russia World Cup, many cite the Swiss national team for setting the standard for being multicultural.

Known affectionately by its fans in Switzerland as “the Nati,” 14 of the 23 members of the Swiss team were either born outside of Switzerland or are “secondos” — a word used by the Swiss to denote the offspring of immigrants.

Switzerland is not the only team that came to the World Cup in Russia with a sizable portion of players from the country’s migrant or ethnic minority communities.

More than three-quarters of France’s team (18 players) are from the country’s varied communities of immigrants, while the Belgians have 11 such players, England 10, and Germany six.

Baumgartner could have also mentioned Denmark’s national team, whose star forward, Pione Sisto, was born in Uganda to South Sudanese refugee parents, as one reads in this piece on The Guardian’s ‘World Cup Experts’ Network’, as well as in Le Monde, which opines that Sisto incarnates “le métissage réussi du football danois.”

Further down the article, Baumgartner writes

In a strange reversal, 17 of Morocco’s 23 players at the World Cup and 11 of Tunisia’s were born in Europe — mainly in France and the Netherlands. They spurned their home countries to play for the birthland of their parents or grandparents.

“Many of the players now choose to play for Morocco instead of the Netherlands,” said Frank van Eekeren, an assistant professor and researcher on sports and society at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

“There is a change [going on] there — I’m not sure if it’s a change in the whole society or just in this particular group that feels a different kind of connection to our country,” he said. “It could be a sign of players that don’t feel at home in the country [in which] they were born.”

It is likewise with Algeria’s national team, which, as we saw in 2014, is mainly comprised of dual-national Franco-Algerians born and raised in France.

As for why these players opt for the national teams of their parents’ countries of origin, the reason has less to do with identity than the fact that they are far more likely to be called up regularly by the Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian teams than the talent-heavy French (or Dutch etc). Professional considerations override personal sentiment. Seriously, if any of those dual-national players on the aforementioned Maghreb teams had been called up by Les Bleus early on in their football careers, what do you think they would have done?

2nd UPDATE: Afshin Molavi, who is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, has an opinion piece (July 6th) in The Washington Post on “What France and Belgium’s World Cup success says about European immigration.”

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fair play

I’m sort of following the Olympics, watching a bit on TV, keeping up with the medals table. I’ve read about the Russian doping scandal over the past couple of weeks. Am not surprised the Russkies got off with a slap on the wrist. The affair recalled a good Czech film I saw last year, Fair Play (in France: Sur la ligne), about state-organized doping of athletes in Czechoslovakia during the communist era (and that was likewise in the other eastern bloc countries). Here’s a plot summary culled from IMDB

The 1980s in Czechoslovakia. The young talented sprinter Anna (Judit Bárdos) is selected for the national team and starts training to qualify for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (before the Soviet decision to boycott). As part of the preparation she is placed in a secret “medical program” where she’s getting doped with anabolic steroids. Her performance is getting better, but after she collapses in training, she learns the truth about the drugs. Anna decides to continue her training without the steroids even though her mother (Anna Geislerova) is worried that she won’t be able to keep up with other athletes and might not qualify for the Olympics, which she sees as the only chance for her daughter to escape from behind the Iron Curtain (her parents having been dissidents and her father living in exile in Vienna). After Anna finishes last in the indoor race, her mother informs the coach (Roman Luknar) that Anna had stopped using steroids. They decide to apply the steroids to Anna secretly, pretending it’s nothing but doses of harmless vitamins.

The film offers what is certainly the most accurate cinematic treatment one will find of state-organized doping in communist countries: of the collaboration of doctors, oversight of the secret police and the party, and the pressure that was brought to bear on the athletes to comply—e.g. access to higher education and other resources, post-sporting career employment—and particularly if the athlete’s family was already politically suspect, as was Anna’s in the film. In short, it lays bare the overall insidiousness of the really existing socialism of the Soviet bloc countries. The pic did well at the box office in the Czech Republic (it has yet to open in the US or UK). The reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are good. Trailer is here.

Not all was dodgy or somber in the Soviet bloc sports scene, it should be said. Last year I saw the terrific documentary, Red Army, by American filmmaker Gabe Polsky, about the saga of the HC CSKA Moscow ice hockey team, nicknamed “Red Army”—that formed the core of the national team the Soviet Union fielded in international competition—mainly from the 1970s to the early ’90s. The Red Army/USSR ice hockey team may well have been the best ever in any sport—and, under the yoke of the legendary slave-driver coach, Viktor Tikhonov, no doubt the most militarily regimented. The national team regularly blew away the competition in international sporting events (though was shocked by Team USA—then comprised of college-level amateurs—at the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, in what was one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports). They were amazing. One does not need to know a thing about ice hockey or have the slightest interest in it to find the documentary riveting and all-around excellent—critics in France and the US/UK alike gave it the thumbs way up—as it’s about politics, the Cold War, and the Soviet Union in its waning years as much as it is about sports (see the trailer here). Among those interviewed throughout the documentary are two of the USSR national team’s great players, Vladislav Tretiak and Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov—the latter, along with others on the team, going to the US and Canada in 1989 and after to play in the NHL—and the journalist Vladimir Posner, who was a fixture on American television in the 1980s, as a slick, English-speaking spokesman for the Soviet Union.

Did the Soviet hockey players take anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs? Probably, though in that they would not have differed from their counterparts in North America.


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Euro 2016

France-Germany, Marseille, July 7th (photo: Tribune Sports)

France-Germany, Marseille, July 7th (photo: Tribune Sports)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

This is my first post on the Euro 2016—which I’ve been following for the past month, watching most of the games in whole or in part—and, if France loses to Portugal in the final tonight, will be my last. But Les Bleus should logically not lose, as France is the host country of the tournament, the game’s at the Stade de France, the nation is entirely behind them, and the victories against valiant Iceland and, above all, formidable Germany were just so thrilling. Les Bleus have the mo’. And it would just be so terribly disappointing if they lost. Also, Portugal isn’t what it used to be. Except for the semifinal against Wales, the games the Seleção won were won ugly. They have not have impressed. Voilà: Allez les Bleus!

The Wall Street Journal Europe’s sports editor Joshua Robinson has a good, informative piece, dated July 6th, on “The French soccer revolution.” The lede: “Unlike France’s last title-winning team, its Euro 2016 side features a core of key players who developed outside the country’s prestigious academy system.” As I don’t follow club soccer—i.e. I pay only passing attention to the professional leagues—I wasn’t aware of the particular parcours of Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud, and other new stars of the national team.

In this vein, also see the piece in Mediapart by Michaël Hadjenberg, “Griezmann, une histoire française.” The lede: “Bien peu de gens le savent mais Antoine Griezmann est en partie à l’origine de ‘l’affaire des quotas’.”

Soccer scholar Laurent Dubois, who teaches in the history department at Duke University, has a nice post, dated July 9th, “Paul Pogba’s joyful, exuberant moment of brilliance [in the France-Germany semi-final] was the play of Euro 2016,” on Slate’s soccer blog. Also see his June 29th post, “How football can explain a divided Europe.”

Some random comments on the tournament:

Did anyone not adore plucky Iceland and all its supporters who flew over from Reykjavik? One-tenth of that country’s population came to France to support their team. And who couldn’t love TV announcer Guðmundur Benediktsson (a.k.a. Gummi Ben)?

But the Irish fans were the greatest, no?

Les Bleus clearly didn’t miss Karim Benzema. The brouhaha over his and Hatem Ben Arfa’s non-selection—of whether or not this reflected anti-Arab racism by the FFF—was hugely overblown. In view of the sordid affair in which Benzema has found himself—and in which he is no doubt guilty—there was simply no way Didier Deschamps could have selected him. It would have been a big distraction and the French public would not have accepted it. And as the tournament was at home, the team needed the public 100% behind it. End of story.

Les Bleus are still multicultural and multiconfessional, bien évidemment.

The knockout stage bracket was too imbalanced, one consequence of expanding the tournament to 24 teams (it should have remained at 16). Too bad Germany-Italy happened in the quarterfinal (a consequence of the imbalanced bracket).

Germany’s Mesut Özil is one class act. I like the Mannschaft. A great team with cool players. Glad they lost.

Was disappointed for Belgium. France-Belgium in the final: ça aurait été beau.

Felt for England, which is normally my default team (after France). To be humiliated by little Iceland, that’s tough.

Lots of Portugal flags on display in the Paris area, including in my banlieue, where there is a sizable Portuguese community. People have no problem with Franco-Portuguese supporting the old country team. Can one imagine the political reaction if a similar number of Algerian flags were in view for a France-Algeria match? Hah.

UPDATE: A frustrating final. It started well for Les Blues but Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury—leaving the match on a stretcher and in tears—put a damper on things. The Bleus outplayed the Seleção and in all categories during regulation time but were ineffective in the penalty area. Once in overtime the Seleção took control and the Blues came apart. They were just kicking the ball around, unable to do anything. When Eder scored his excellent goal at the 110th minute, it was over. Dommage pour la France et félicitations au Portugal.

2nd UPDATE: Franklin Foer, writing in Slate’s soccer blog after last night’s game, does not mince words in observing that “Portugal’s turgid victory was the dreadful ending this terrible European championships deserved.” Can’t disagree with a thing he says.

3rd UPDATE: France’s defeat may have been disappointing—for supporters of France at least—but was not disgraceful, as no host country of a European championship or World Cup since 1980 has won the title…except for France. The historical record:

Euro 2016 – France: lost the final
World Cup 2014 – Brazil: lost semi-final
Euro 2012 – Poland & Ukraine: eliminated in group stage
World Cup 2010 – South Africa: eliminated in group stage
Euro 2008 – Austria & Switzerland: eliminated in group stage
World Cup 2006 – Germany: lost semi-final
Euro 2004 – Portugal: lost the final
World Cup 2002 – Japan & South Korea: lost in round of 16 & in semi-final
Euro 2000 – Belgium & Netherlands: eliminated in group stage & lost semi-final
World Cup 1998 – France: WORLD CHAMPION!
Euro 1996 – England: lost semi-final
World Cup 1994 – USA: lost in round of 16
Euro 1992 – Sweden: lost semi-final
World Cup 1990 – Italy: lost semi-final
Euro 1988 – West Germany: lost semi-final
World Cup 1986: Mexico: lost quarter-final
Euro 1984 – France: EUROPEAN CHAMPION!
World Cup 1982 – Spain: eliminated in second round
Euro 1980 – Italy: lost third place playoff

Arun's balcony, July 10th

Arun’s balcony, July 10th

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Muhammad Ali, R.I.P.

When We Were Kings

My social media timeline was covered with tributes when he died a week ago. I didn’t put up anything myself, as I was off the blog for two weeks and with limited Internet access—on a voyage that I will write about soon—but also as I didn’t have anything of interest to say about him. But as today is his funeral, and with a part of America honoring his memory, I will add my 1¢ here, namely to say that he was one of those public personalities whom I knew, as it were, for most of my life, notwithstanding my zero interest in boxing. Muhammad Ali was a character whom one found amusing and interesting, not least for his political views, such as expressed here and here in regard to the Vietnam war. And his Chicago mansion—on the 4900 block of S.Woodlawn—being in my neighborhood in the 1980s, I would make a point to show it to visiting out-of-town friends (though Muhammad Ali didn’t actually spend much time there; pour l’info, Barack & Michelle Obama’s Chicago home—where they no longer spend much time either—is nearby, on the 5000 block of S.Greenwood). And he was certainly one of the better known Americans abroad, at least in Muslim countries in the 1960s and ’70s; I have memories of his name coming up with people when I lived in Turkey back then. And then there was the Rumble in the Jungle, which was the subject of the excellent documentary, When We Were Kings (see here and here). I think I’ll watch it again.

Slate has passages of “The best stories ever written about Muhammad Ali.” The full text of Murray Kempton’s is here.

UPDATE: President Obama has an exceptional tribute to Muhammad Ali, posted on the White House website. Watch Valerie Jarrett read it at the funeral here.

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Photo credit: graphics8.nytimes.com

Photo credit: graphics8.nytimes.com

That’s the title of an opinion piece (June 11th) by the well-known libertarian-conservative legal scholar Richard A. Epstein—of the University of Chicago Law School, among other places—in Politico.eu (adapted from a version published three days earlier in the Hoover Institution’s journal Defining Ideas), in which he argues for a major overhaul in the rules governing world soccer. When I saw the click-bait title and then the identity of the author—whose world-view is generally the opposite of mine—I snorted and scoffed, assuming that he would propose rule changes to increase scoring, like scrapping the offside rule and widening the goal, or stopping the clock every ten minutes for commercial interruptions. In any case, I feared the worst.

But lo and behold, Epstein’s piece is excellent and I completely, totally agree with every proposal he makes, a few of which I’ve even been thinking myself, e.g. increasing the number of referees, adopting video review for fouls (particularly in the penalty area), and allowing for more substitutions of players during the game. He also argues for making regular goals count for two points and penalties one—which makes sense—and revamping what he calls soccer’s atrocious penalty structure for various infractions.

Epstein is not arguing that soccer should become more “American”—that’s just the title to hook the reader—but that its rules are archaic and are crying out for change, and that, on this score, the sport could draw inspiration from two played in America, basketball and ice hockey, which have evolved over the decades and kept up with the times. With Sepp Blatter gone and the prospect of the Qatar bid being reopened, which would make the US the favorite to host the 2022 tournament, maybe US Soccer will push for FIFA to adopt Epstein’s proposal. That would be good.

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The World Cup – X

Rio de Janiero, July 13 2014 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Rio de Janiero, July 13 2014 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

A well-deserved victory by Germany, which was the best overall team in the tournament. As Slate senior editor and soccer aficionado Jeremy Stahl wrote à chaud after the game, one should not cry for Argentina or Lionel Messi, as “This Germany team is [indeed] one of the best in years.” And it is certainly more sympathique than the Mannschaft teams of the 1980s.

So that’s it. My evenings will no longer be consumed by sports as they have for the past month. And save for any new developments on the 2022 Qatar question, this will likely be my last soccer post until the Euro 2016, i.e. for two years. Back to politics and movies…

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The World Cup – IX


[update below]

I watched with slack-jawed incredulity the unbelievable Brazilian collapse against Germany on Tuesday, my sentiment no doubt being shared by all the several hundred million people tuned into the game across the globe. I felt so badly for Brazil, team and people. The best analysis I’ve read so far on the game is an article in Slate by Irish Times journalist Ken Early, “Why Brazil lost.” The lede: Rather than make a real plan, [the Brazilians] abandoned themselves to romantic notions of passion and desire.

Early’s piece is well worth the read. He suggests, among other things, that some soul-searching will have to be done in Brazil. The reception the Seleção receives from the hometown crowd at Saturday’s consolation game in Brasilia will be instructive. If it’s even somewhat akin to that received by the German Mannschaft at their third place match in Stuttgart in 2006, as Early describes it, that will be good and salutary. But if Brazilian fans greet their team with negativity—e.g. pelting them with garbage and hurling insults, as happened in 1986 at Rio de Janeiro airport upon the Seleção’s return following its quarterfinal elimination from the tournament that year (I remember the TV news image of this)—and pile on the humiliation, I will lose a lot of sympathy for them.

On Brazil, here’s a piece dated June 17th in the Afro-American-oriented webzine The Root, by journalist Dion Rabouin, on how “Black identity and racism collide in Brazil.” The lede: The country’s complex history with race gains the spotlight as the World Cup attempts to address the recent wave of racist attacks against black players.

And here’s something from the NYT (July 7th) on “Neymar’s injury sidelin[ing] effort to end World Cup racism.”

I was hoping for a Brazil-Netherlands final but Germany put paid to that. Then I thought a Germany-Netherlands final would be pretty cool but now that won’t be happening either. The Argentina-Netherlands game yesterday was not nearly as “exciting” as the one on Tuesday, though I didn’t think it was as dull as did various media and FB commentators. Both teams played very well defensively, particularly the Dutch, though the latter were admittedly insipid and uninspired on offense—no shots on goal in regulation time and too many free kicks that went nowhere—, so Argentina’s victory in the shootout was merited. But La Albiceleste hasn’t been overly impressive in the tournament, depends too heavily on a single player (L.Messi), and has had such an odious reputation over the decades—of playing dirty and bad sportsmanship—that I’ll be all for Germany on Sunday.

UPDATE: Cambridge University political theorist David Runciman, who’s been posting on the World Cup on the LRB blog, has a good commentary on the Brazilian debacle. See also his successive post, on Argentina’s inglorious 1978 World Cup victory.


greetings from brazil

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Celebrating Algeria's World Cup qualifying victory over Burkina Faso, November 19 2013

Celebrating Algeria’s World Cup qualifying victory over Burkina Faso, November 19 2013

This is a continuation of my post of three days ago, on Franco-Algerians and issues of identity, which I put up before saying everything I wanted to say on the subject. Three more comments. First, when pondering—and dreading—a hypothetical France-Algeria World Cup quarterfinal—which thankfully did not come to pass—, one immediately thinks of the October 6, 2001, France-Algeria friendly de funeste mémoire, before a packed Stade de France in Saint-Denis, the first time the two national teams had met for a friendly match and in France (the one previous meeting between national soccer teams of the two was the 1975 Mediterranean Games final in Algiers—and which was won by Algeria). The game’s advance billing presented it as a beautiful—and heavily symbolic—moment of Franco-Algerian friendship and reconciliation, so numerous politicians and other public personalities were present at the stadium, including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Minister of Youth and Sports—and the then PCF Secretary-General—Marie-George Buffet had the brilliant—or, one should say, “brilliant”—idea to distribute free tickets for the game to thousands of young people of Algerian parentage in the surrounding, heavily immigrant populated banlieues (Saint-Denis being in the heart of the neuf-trois). A lovely gesture, or so she thought. The stadium was a sea of Algerian flags. When Les Bleus—the celebrated black-blanc-beur team that had won the World Cup three years earlier—entered, they were booed. And when the national anthems were played, La Marseillaise was likewise booed. And loudly. Throughout the game, whenever a French player took the ball, he was booed—even national hero Zineddine Zidane, and normally beloved by young Franco-Algerians—and with the Algerian players loudly cheered. And then at the 76th minute, with France leading 4-1, youthful spectators invaded the field. It was pandemonium (watch here, from 6:50). The game had to be called and with the players quickly exiting to the locker room.

What was to have been a beautiful moment symbolizing the friendship between the two countries turned into a fiasco. Jospin, Buffet, and the other VIPs were like statues during the game—their faces frozen—whenever the TV camera panned to them (and Mme Buffet was hit by a projectile). I watched the whole thing with my wife and we were speechless. And stunned, as was everyone we knew—including all the Algerians and other Maghrebis—who watched the game. And the reaction was likewise across the board in France. French society was blindsided by the spectacle, of tens of thousands of young French citizens—or citizens-to-be—booing France and the symbols—flag and anthem—of the French nation. It led the news the next day, was the headline in all the papers, and the cover story in the weekly news magazines, with analyses, tribunes, and debates as to the meaning of what had happened and how to interpret the manifest alienation from French society of a portion of the younger generation of Algerian immigrant origin. As the Front National was at an electoral low point at the time, there wasn’t much demagoguery from politicians over the event. Mainly shock and disorientation. The most sober reaction came from the Über-republican patriot Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who spoke of how saddened he was by the spectacle and what he interpreted as the failure of the Republic to integrate young Franco-Algerians.

The most virulent reaction, as it happened, came from Algeria, with the press there unanimously denouncing the youthful Franco-Algerians at the Stade de France, whose comportment disgraced Algeria and Algerians in France, so the Algerian press asserted. Algerians in Algeria spared their brethren in France no quarter. And the adults in France’s Algerian population felt likewise.

The fallout from the game was long-lasting. It was not forgotten. In debates over post-colonial immigrant integration, there was a before and after October 2001. A France-Algeria match today—and a high stakes one at that—would certainly see similar type behavior from young Franco-Algerians. But there would be fewer soul-searching reactions à la Chevènement from politicians. In view of the current electoral strength of the FN, the surge of the hard right-wing of the UMP—thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-François Copé—, and the Internet réacosphère (with countless right-wing blogs and reactionary websites, e.g. Valeurs Actuelles), the political récupération and exploitation would be terrible. The well would be poisoned big time. As I have said, France does not need this.

A second comment, and to put things in perspective: Except when playing Algeria—or Morocco or Tunisia—the French national team is actively supported by young Franco-Algerians/Maghrebis. In the wild celebrations that followed France’s 1998 World Cup victory over Brazil, young Franco-Maghrebis were out in force—and marking the French victory by waving Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian flags (which I was able to observe, having been out and about on that glorious July night). Again, hybrid/multiple identities issuing from post-colonial immigration.

Third comment. On the phenomenon and significance of waving flags of former French colonies at events in France—including political rallies—see the guest post on this blog by sociologist (and personal friend) Didier Le Saout dated May 7, 2012, in which he analyses “les drapeaux étrangers et le débat de l’intégration des populations étrangères dans la société française” (scroll to nº2; see also my exchange on this with a conservative American who commented on the blog).

Political scientist and Algeria specialist Thomas Serres has a sharp analysis (June 29th) in the webzine Jadaliyya, “From the World Cup to the ‘Great Replacement’: Football and Racist Narratives in France.”

Celebrating Algeria's World Cup qualifying victory over Egypt, November 18 2009

Celebrating Algeria’s World Cup qualifying victory over Egypt, November 18 2009

On Team USA’s elimination by Belgium last Tuesday, I have nothing in particular to say about it except too bad, better luck in 2018, and Tim Howard was awesome. Everyone is remarking on the upsurge of interest in the World Cup in the US, with statistics published in WaPo “[proving that] Americans care more about soccer than you think.” And in case one missed it, the NYT’s Sam Borden had a good piece after the Belgium game, “Wild ride by U.S. comes to end, but soccer is the winner.” On the engouement for soccer in the US

World Cups have been growing in popularity among Americans for some time, but this tournament has felt different. Explanations for the surge vary, with some pointing to Brazil’s time zone being favorable for American viewers, especially compared to South Africa four years ago. Others say soccer’s spike is simply the result of a growing Hispanic population in the United States as well as the inevitable aging of Millenials. A great number of soccer-loving children have now become consumer adults.

“These are all young people who grew up with the game, whether it be the English Premier League or Major League Soccer, and they don’t need to be convinced that soccer is a sport that is worthy of their attention,” said Don Garber, the commissioner of M.L.S. “The country has changed. This is a new America.”

Statistics seem to support that claim. Fourteen percent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 said professional soccer was their favorite sport, second only to the N.F.L., according to Rich Luker, who runs a sports research firm. That means a greater number of fans are more likely to continue following the sport even when the pageantry of the World Cup is over.

Millennials are not just knowledgeable about the Premier League and MLS but have grown up playing the game—which was not the case in my generation (and certainly not among boys in the Midwest). And, as Ann Coulter and other soccer denigrators—of which I was one until two decades ago—surely know, those Americans who play soccer and/or follow it are mainly middle and upper-middle class and include many from Republican families (and whose grandparents were born in the US…).

Hypothesis: One reason Ann Coulter and her ideological ilk are suspicious of soccer—apart from the fact that they didn’t grow up with it—is that an interest in the sport necessarily and positively engages one with the rest of the world, and particularly Europe. One cannot follow soccer without an on-going knowledge of—and respect for—the major European leagues—and which will be superior to MLS for a long time to come. One cannot be a soccer fan and America-centric.

I like these pics of “fanatical ‘gringo’ fans suffering defeat in the round of 16,” on a Venezuelan website I stumbled across.

Hypothesis: Ann Coulter and ilk also dislike the rise of soccer in the US because it is a team sport in which Americans are not the best and where the US national team will inevitably lose to some European, Latin American, African country, that Americans will have to get used to defeat—as do all other countries, including Brazil—, but that it’s not a big deal. The playing field will always be level.

Assertion: Ann Coulter and ilk will just have to get used to their fellow Americans liking soccer. There’s not a thing they can do about it.

Watching Belgium-USA on the big screen at Soldier Field, Chicago, July 1st (photo: Scott Olson/Getty Image)

Watching Belgium-USA on the big screen at Soldier Field, Chicago, July 1st
(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Image)

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The World Cup – VII

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)

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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 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: “Well, yeah.” Me: “Are you for the Les Bleus too?” Him: “Of course.” Me: “So?” Him: “I dunno, that’s the way it is. I’m for Algeria.” 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.

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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)

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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

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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…).



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The World Cup – II

France-Honduras, Porto Alegre, June 15th

France-Honduras, Porto Alegre, June 15th

The Algeria-Belgium game is underway as I write. One of the most nationalist countries in the world vs. a country that isn’t even a nation. As it happens, all but two players on the Algerian team play professionally outside Algeria and two-thirds are actually from France, i.e. they’re French-Algerian dual nationals (c’est-à-dire, des beurs). As for the Belgian team, four of today’s eleven starting players are of immigrant origin (Morocco, Mali, the Congo, Martinique). I would have expected more. Contrast this with the Swiss team that played Ecuador on Sunday: of the eleven starters and two substitutes, precisely ten are of immigrant origin: Diego Benaglio (Italy), Johan Djourou (Ivory Coast), Ricardo Rodríguez (Spain), Valon Behrami (Kosovo), Gökhan Inler (Turkey), Xherdan Shaqiri (Kosovo), Granit Xhaka (Kosovo), Josip Drmic (Croatia), Admir Mehmedi (Macedonia), Haris Seferovic (Bosnia). There are more Swiss players who ethnically hail from the ex-Yugoslavia than Suisses de souche! Haven’t yet seen anything on how they feel about that in la Suisse profonde.

Back to Belgium, University of Georgia prof Cas Mudde has a post on Monkey Cage (June 15th) asking “Can soccer unite the Belgians?” And on TNR’s fine World Cup blog, “Goal Posts” (June 16th), Cambridge University political scientist David Runciman explains “Why you should (and should not) be excited about Belgium’s new golden generation,” the Belgian team being, he argues, “[a] test for the unifying power of soccer.”

Update: Belgium beat Algeria. Logically.

I missed the first two days of the tournament, including the Netherlands-Spain game (I was some 35,000 feet above India, or maybe Af-Pak, while it was underway). Arriving back in Paris on Saturday, I learned to my incredulity that the majority of the group games are on pay TV only, on the Qatari network beIN Sports. F*cking Qatar. So I’ve missed a few games I wanted to see, notably last night’s Ghana-USA. But as a month sub for beIN is only €12, and which can be cancelled at any moment, I decided today to just do it, as there’s no way I’m going to miss Portugal-USA late Sunday night, entre autres.

All the France games are on TF1, of course. Les Bleus played well against Honduras (admittedly not among the stronger teams in the tournament). If Les Bleus beat the Swiss—who are good—on Friday, they’ll go to Round 16.

À suivre.

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