FEATURE: French society pushes soccer stars to England

The Guardian, LONDON

Sat, May 14, 2011 - Page 18

Benoit Assou-Ekotto still finds the concept faintly amazing, despite having lived in England for the past five years, and so does Sebastien Bassong, his teammate at the English Premiership club Tottenham Hotspur, who has been in the country now for three. When the French-born Cameroon internationals ask colleagues, such as Jermain Defoe or Aaron Lennon, where they come from, the answers touch a nerve that is red raw in France at present.

“They say, of course, that they are English or British,” Assou-Ekotto said. “At first, I thought that they must be ashamed of their origins because coming from where I did in France, even if you had only one little drop of Moroccan blood, for example, you would represent it to the death. You would be fiercely proud of being African, but here, it is different.”

“People might say that their parents are from Ivory Coast, Nigeria or wherever, but they are fiercely proud of being here and the society accepts that, which is a big difference to France. When you ask the same question in France, people will say: ‘I’m from Congo or Mali or Cameroon’ because there isn’t the sense of belonging,” he added.

French soccer remains in the grip of the scandal that erupted two weeks ago when the content of a meeting between French federation heads and senior coaches, including national team manager Laurent Blanc, was leaked.

On the agenda was the sensitive issue of dual-nationality players, who were developed at French academies and even played for the country at youth levels only to declare for their nations of origin. Bassong, a product of Clairefontaine, the renowned center of excellence, and a former France under-21 player, was named specifically.

When the transcript of the conversation became public, it caused outrage, not least because a “solution,” voiced by French Football Federation (FFF) technical director Francois Blaquart, involved limiting the number of non-white 12 and 13-year-olds who entered French training centers and academies. It was alleged that the quota of black and Arab youngsters ought not to exceed 30 percent. Blaquart has been suspended from his post.

Gallic soul-searching has followed, particularly as France is facing a re-emergence of the far right, with Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, soaring in recent opinion polls. The issue has transcended soccer and has dominated television news and discussion programs. The presidential election will be held next year and immigration is a hot topic.

Bassong is uncomfortable with his bit part in the storm, but not as uncomfortable as he feels with some of the views that have been expressed.

He said Blaquart’s quota suggestion was “insane” and “going far, really far.”

The notion that the FFF considered effectively cutting its losses on dual-nationality youngsters feels risible. However, the general unpleasantness of the affair has raised more fundamental questions, with the most prominent concerning why young men such as Assou-Ekotto and Bassong, who were born and raised in France, can feel such a disconnection from the society and, by extension, the France national team.

“I’m surprised by this affair, but I’m not necessarily shocked because it’s a reflection of French society as I see it,” Assou-Ekotto said. “I would put a question to you. Can you name another country where, when the national anthem is sung at the stadium, people boo and whistle? This happens in France all the time. It is not foreigners who make up the crowd, it is people who are supposed to be French and yet there is this disconnect between the state and the people, and they do that. And yet, when something is wrong, they highlight the foreigners.”

“France has, at its heart, a problem where it has been unable or unwilling to accommodate the sons and daughters of its former colonies, even though France benefited and enriched itself greatly from the relationship. That’s hard to accept and it’s what sits at the base of what is dysfunctional in France,” he added.

Assou-Ekotto and Bassong speak of multicultural England in slightly reverential tones, their stories taking in the Sikh policeman in his turban, the drive-thru McDonald’s girl in her burqa and the bank employee with his tattoos.

“I’m not going to lie and say it isn’t more difficult in France than it is in England to find work if you have a big beard, for example,” Bassong said. “That’s just a fact. In England, it’s more open and that’s why people come here, because they know that they will get a chance, no matter how they dress or where they are from.”

“In England, minds are more open. That’s why French players who play in England don’t want to go back to France. The way that English people think ... they don’t judge you for anything. When you go into a bank, you can see someone who is working with a tattoo. You can’t see that in France. French society still has to work with its approach to foreign people,” Bassong said.

Assou-Ekotto was born in Arras to a French mother and a Cameroonian father. To him, it was never a consideration to pursue an international career with Les Bleus (the French national team). The cynics might say that it was because he was not good enough, but Assou-Ekotto had turned down the chance to train in the France youth set-up at the age of 14.

It was the same year that France’s “Black-Blanc-Beur” (Black-White-Arab) team, the supposed model of integration, won the World Cup.

“Even at that age, it wasn’t something that represented anything to me as an individual,” Assou-Ekotto said. “I’d already decided that I didn’t have a bond with this nation.”