x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Grey area in French football's colour quandary

Accusations of agreement to limit the number of non-white youths in academies is another setback for the FFF.

Fernand Duchaussoy, the FFF president, speaks to journalists last week following reports of proposed ethnic quotas.
Fernand Duchaussoy, the FFF president, speaks to journalists last week following reports of proposed ethnic quotas.

Accusations of agreement to limit the number of non-white youths in academies is another setback for the FFF

"Blaq" and Blanc. Could there be a more apposite pairing of names for the men caught up in allegations of racism at the very top of French football?

Francois Blaquart, the technical director of the French Football Federation (FFF), has been suspended pending an investigation into media reports of proposed ethnic quotas at training academies. The accusation, denied by the FFF, is of an agreement to limit the intake of non-white youths to around 30 per cent.

It allegedly arose in a discussion with other senior FFF figures, including Laurent Blanc, the national coach, about players of African and North African heritage.

One report suggested the men were exploring the need for a balance between both powerful and intelligent footballers. You can probably guess which colour of player was presumed more likely to display each quality.

The official - and marginally less offensive - explanation is that they were discussing the problem of investing FFF resources into training young Frenchmen who later defected to play for the country of their parents' or grandparents' birth.

But even then, a racial quota policy would seem unfair. Why should a gifted 13-year-old of immigrant stock miss out to a less-gifted white boy because of a groundless suspicion he might one day decide to play for, say, Morocco? It is not his fault if others have done so.

It is an ugly situation for a team still struggling to recover from the ignominy of last year's World Cup meltdown - a situation which, to their shame, was blamed by far-right politicians in France on the preponderance of black players.

It also flirts with an uncomfortable question for sports fans: is it racist for a white man from a predominantly white country to yearn to see a few white faces in his national football team?

The answer must surely be yes. He is racist because he is prioritising skin tone over ability. If the best 11 players in his country happen to be non-white, then so be it. In sport, ability is everything.

So let me put the question another way. Is it racist to wish to see your country's ethnic make-up more accurately reflected in its national teams?

That sounds a lot nicer, right? That sounds like something to be celebrated - just as we did when the ethnically diverse German team illuminated last year's World cup, or the so-called "Black, Blanc and Beur" France team (in which Laurent Blanc played a pivotal role) triumphed in 1998, or when the magnificently named Chilliboy Ralepelle became the first black man to captain the South African rugby union team five years ago.

Indeed, this goal of racial diversity in sport is not only something to be celebrated if it happens by coincidence, but actively pursued.

In many western countries, certain organisations are dedicated to encouraging black and Asian children into sports where they are traditionally under-represented.

So it is OK to prioritise skin tones, as long as they are the right ones. To misquote Henry Ford, it seems that in sport you can promote any colour you like, as long as it is black.

The theory behind such diversity drives is clear. Not only do they boost social cohesion by mixing children of all races, but they also increase the chance of sporting success.

Throw the net as wide as possible to find the best talent. It is also far more agreeable for a patriot (of any colour) to yearn for a racial mix than to simply demand more of his "own kind".

But does that mean the "racist" Frenchman, the one who wonders why there are so few white faces in his national team, is entirely wrong? Should we shun him as an ignorant pariah, dismiss him as a far-fight loony, or should we investigate his concerns?

Players of African and North African descent are, statistically speaking, over-represented in many national teams, including those of France and England.

To say this is because black men make stronger and faster players sounds racist in itself, although a glance at any top level sprint final offers compelling evidence.

It may be that black boys mature faster than white boys, meaning they catch the eye of scouts and coaches to the detriment of teenagers whose potential has not yet blossomed - and, by the time it does, the later bloomers have become disillusioned or simply forgotten. This theory is borne out by the disproportionate number of elite footballers born in September or October. Do not underestimate the advantage of being slightly bigger or stronger than one's peer group at a crucial stage.

It may also be that an impoverished childhood, which immigrants are more likely to experience, creates a better footballer. Tough kids from tough estates may well have a greater hunger to succeed, a more robust physicality, and - in some cases - less parental pressure to concentrate on school work.

To address the issue of late bloomers slipping through the net sounds doable, if difficult. To address the other issue - decades, perhaps even centuries, of social inequality between blacks and whites - seems a tad outside the remit of the FFF.

Whatever the solution is - and it cannot be racial quotas - the ethnic mix of national teams is a debate which needs airing lest it becomes a running sore, exploited by the far-right as it was last summer. The discussion must be honest, constructive and we cannot resort to shouting "Racist!" as soon as anybody suggests there may be differences - social, cultural, and physical - between players of different colour.

The answer to this one is complex. It is not Blaq and Blanc.