"Once again the morality play of the French national soccer team is playing out post elimination, with the crowds once again screaming for a head." By John Von Sothen.
Once again the morality play of the French national soccer team is playing out post elimination, with the crowds once again screaming for a head. And they’ve found it, conveniently, not in the overall lousy play of the team itself, nor in the selection or uninspired coaching of manager Laurent Blanc, but in the bouc émissaire (scape goat) of central midfielder (milieu offensive) Samir Nasri, whose post-game rant on a reporter following the team’s loss to Spain has called into question not only Nasri himself and whether he’ll have a role on the team in the future, but the general lack of respect the players have for the sport today, the education they’ve received up until now, the heavy unearned salaries they all pocket during “ces temps de crise,” and blah and blah and blah. Pardon my French, but give me a fucking break.
What’s really being said, above the din of “les joueurs devraient être sélectionnés sur des qualités humaines” (players should be chosen for their human qualities more than talent) or “Ils sont des enfants gâtés” (they’re spoiled brats) is a corporate brief Les Bleus are being asked (no ordered) to hold to. We want it clean, we want it nice, and we want it white.
The cover of the daily Le Parisien Wednesday read “Le Débat fait rage” (The debate rages) but there really seems to be no debate. Every French newspaper left and right, every radio host, every sports talk show (cable and non-cable) regurgitates the same self-satisfied narrative: Nasri’s all that’s wrong with the sport. Nasri illustrates the disconnect between not only rich and poor, but thug and law abiding. Nasri’s an example of the failure of integration and testament to the corruption of French youth. By the end of week, I’m guessing European debt and the problem with unemployment will be put at Samir Nasri’s feet as well.
What’s worrying with all this hot air is not just the gang mentality unwarrantedly directed towards an individual, but one that’s laced with a creaky nostalgia “bon ton à la française”; you know the one that talks about a time when players were saints, teams were united and guys like Nasri would have been honored to wear the blue and represent France on a world stage.
Perhaps I don’t know soccer as well as others, but I can smell a corporate/political messages when I see it. And its’ pretty obvious two are playing out right now, neither of which are pretty.
First is a sort of cultural puritanism regarding player behavior, one that says not only should the Bleus be great players, but “upstanding individuals” as well. What makes Nasri’s behavior so deplorable they say, is that young people are looking up to these players and they have to be above reproach.
Isn’t it ironic though that the role model argument always seems to be applied when there’s lots of corporate sponsorship involved? You know the sponsors who pay to have their logo appear right behind Laurent Blanc when he’s interviewed after each match. Do we ask virtuoso violinists to hold themselves to a higher standard once they leave the stage?
The problem is we want it both ways. We want role models (i.e. corporate pitch men) while at the same time we demand an entertaining product on the field, one that stars competitive hard-core super athletes ready to sacrifice their body each match at a win-at-all costs velocity much faster than before. And when that athlete isn’t able to all of suddenly turn it off, he’s considered “uncontrollable”, “badly educated" and “unfit to wear the jersey.” I have no problem with parents using players as role models, but I do question the education of not letting one’s kid see that Samir Nasris like the Joe DiMaggios and Magic Johnsons and Zinadine Zidanes are human beings as well, people that win and lose and get angry and have moments of frustration, moments of pain and yes, weakness.
I don’t remember my father worried that my vision of guys like Michael Strahan of the New York Giants might be ruined when I saw him live in a locker-room turn on a reporter after a loss. If anything, Dad would have been happy I got to see Strahan as a mere mortal, pissed off at work like 99% of us each day, having to deal with a stupid question from a journalist with a personal grudge.
In the din of the witch-hunt though, nobody (not one sports journalist I’ve read) mentions the fact that Nasri played hurt down the stretch against Sweden and apparently played injured against Spain.
Maybe it’s the vulgar American in me to mention this, but I also must remind you that Nasri and his teammates were not getting paid for their participation in the Euro competition, and one could argue running on a bad knee for 90 minutes is tantamount to risking a career while you play for free – a career by the way that on average lasts 2-4 years. Look it up, it’s true.
Dwayne Wade of the NBA champion Miami Heat candidly mentioned this fact last month when he posited that maybe athletes playing for their countries in the Olympics should be paid.
Will Wade be barred from the US team in London for his comments? Did the NBA give him a two-year sentence? No and No.
Instead, the French press find it easier to talk about how Nasri’s a malcontent, how this isn’t the first time he’s done this, how he’s not liked by his teammates, and they mention of course how his post goal taunt during the earlier match against England where Nasri famously yelled “ferme ta gueule” (shut your mouth) to a sideline reporter was utterly offensive. Why is that so offensive?
In New York, Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers, during the 1994 playoffs (which I attended at Madison Square Garden) did the same to Spike Lee on the sidelines following each basket he made.
Miller was a young athlete, full of adrenaline hitting amazing shot after amazing shot and wanted to stick it to a critic (Lee) who’d bath mouthed him in the press. Was he hated by New York fans? Of course he was. Was he loved by Indiana fans? Of course he was. Was he suspended by the league? Of course he wasn’t. And never once did the Reggie Miller’s taunting of Spike Lee provoke a discourse of national identity nor the role of players in society nor the price of bread.
And this is where the second, more worrisome part comes in. The one where the Nasri affair has political and social undertones, with a nasty dash of racism involved.
A year ago, my boss Mediapart unearthed documented transcripts of Blanc and French football officials behind closed doors, ruminating on whether the federation should start imposing quotas based on race.
Blanc himself was captured as saying and I quote: “Qu'est-ce qu'il y a actuellement comme grands, costauds, puissants? Les blacks (...) Je crois qu'il faut recentrer, surtout pour des garçons de 13-14 ans, 12-13 ans, avoir d'autres critères, modifiés avec notre propre culture (...) Les Espagnols, ils m'ont dit: “Nous, on n'a pas de problème. Nous, des blacks, on n'en a pas”.»
« Who do we have that’s big and powerful and athletic? The blacks. I think we need to reorient our efforts, especially with the younger boys (13-14 years old, 12-13) using other criteria, modified to our own culture….The Spanish, they tell me, “We don’t have your problem. Blacks we don’t have them. ” »
Why Blanc wasn’t fired immediately for that is a mystery to me still. More shocking was the fact that the message seems to have gotten through. The team chosen to represent France for the 2012 Euro weirdly looked whiter than before. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I have my doubts, considering guys like Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa; the captain of French Champion Montpellier HSC wasn’t selected despite his and his team’ terrific year. Yanga-Mbiwa, by the way, had continued to refuse to play for his other home country Central Africa in international competition, hoping he could play for France.
I’m sure Blanc and the FFF can provide tons of reasons for why Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa wasn’t chosen; beginning maybe with the strategy they had in place, the performance of those players in preliminary matches blah blah and blah. And with the wondrous results of this Euro competition, how could I argue with them? But when I evoke the Yanga-Mbiwa story with my friends I’m considered paranoid or worse a novice who doesn’t get French football in the slightest, who doesn’t understand how teams are chosen (This isn’t baseball John), and I’m reminded that Yann Gorcuff (who’s white) wasn’t chosen either. See - no racism.
Unfortunately Pape Diouf, the ex-president of OM, in speaking on RMC, disagrees.
"La réalité est que le football français est à l'image de sa société. Le football français est raciste, il exclut. Quand on prend la proportion de joueurs noirs, des garçons qui ont une grande capacité de réflexion : quand ces garçons là veulent un jour embrasser la carrière d'entraîneur ou de dirigeants, on n'en veut pas". (« The fact of the matter is that French soccer reflects its society. French soccer is racist. It excludes. When you compare the large amount of black players who have the ability to coach to who’s hired ? When these guys want to continue a career as coaches or GM’s, they’re not wanted. »)
Worse in the press who’ve taken a paternalistic tone with Nasri saying he needed to be better “educated,” better “coached,” but not in a football way, in a media way. Nasri, I’m told, should know how to deal with a reporter, even one as aggressive as the one on Saturday night, a reporter who says “casse-toi alors” (Get the fuck out of here then) to a frustrated and injured player who doesn’t want to speak with the press, immediately after a stinging loss.
Why hasn’t anybody discussed how the reporter should be educated? I’m a reporter. Is it in my best interests to antagonize and alienate the people who supply me with information? No. But I might try and bait my subject if I think it’ll get a comment out of him that will sell papers. We have a name for that reporter. He’s called paparazzi.
And by the way - the reporter/player or reporter/coach confrontation is an old one. Growing up watching sports these blow ups were an entertaining second act often of the match you just watched, ones that usually played out the same way Nasri’s did – a pissed off coach or player has just lost a game and the reporter (who’s usually a fan and is upset too) goes too far and asks the wrong question or is too aggressive and provokes a nasty, albeit human, explosion. It happened countless times with (Bob Knight) the 30 year coach of Indiana, who’s #1 in all time wins.
It happened constantly with Jim Calhoun, the celebrated coach of Connecticut, who like Knight has enjoyed a long outstanding career.
It happened often with longtime football coach Jim Mora.
It happed with the baseball manager for the Kansas City Royals Hal McRae, who hell, through a fax machine, cutting a reporter’s face.
Not to mention of course, the celebrated Chicago Bears football coach, Mike Ditka, whose locker room rants almost became stand up performances.
Were any of these coaches, suspended? Attacked for not being the role models they’re supposed to be? I think McRae was fired, but most are still coaching. Others are enjoying long standing TV careers as yes corporate pitchmen. And the funny thing. Journalists still interview them. These guys’ outbursts came out of frustration at its zenith and humanity at its barest and the funny thing, which the networks got immediately, it made for great TV.
Fast forward to today in France, where Nasri might be facing a TWO YEAR suspension for his outburst, which seems excessive considering Ron Artest, an NBA player who chased a fan into the stands and punched several others in the process, received just a ONE year suspension.
Or Gilbert Arenas, who brought a gun into a locker-room and told his co-player to choose one, received a one-season suspension.
Mike Tyson even told a reporter to fuck off on live TV. Was the fight canceled? No.
Yet Samir Nasri (one of the only players who actually scored for the Bleus this euro) has become an overnight symbol for all that’s bad with French sports and yes, say it, France in general. Nasri’s young. He’s rich, and he’s Arab, and that annoys a lot of people.
And not just those from the France profonde”, but in the 10th arrondissement where I live and where I’ve heard the same tired clichés that usually start with the salaries. Benzema’s paid too much. Ben Arfa’s paid too much. Perhaps they are, but nobody says the same about Johnny Hallyday for example, who’s much less entertaining I may add than Karim Benzema. I’m also told that there’s thousands who’d be happy to take Nasri’s place. (Unfortunately for those thousands apparently there’s a quota in place to bar most of them). Even recently someone in the uber-hip fashion world felt completely comfortable at a dinner saying "Au moins les joueurs de l'équipe maintenant savent parler français."
And while we’re on the subject of language, apparently the language Nasri used was “unforgiveable,” and I agree, it was bad. Unfortunately though it’s a language I hear a lot in France, and it’s not just unique to Samir Nasri. Am I happy my kids hear it? No. But it’s a language they heard when my wife and I watched the award winning movie Un Prophet the other day. The same language I hear from asshole dads on scooters trying to pass me in the Velib lane in the morning.
And where is Laurent Blanc during all of this? Blanc, in my eyes, would have shown more courage if he’d defended his player to the hilt, even if Nasri was wrong. Much like coach Mike Gundy of Clemson University did when one of his players was wrongfully treated by an unprofessional journalist whose article was ¾ fiction.“Write something about ME or my coaches, Gundy yelled. “Don’t go after my players!”
Instead Blanc claimed Nasri was warned before about his behavior and “apparently the message wasn’t received.” Thanks Coach. Blanc you can tell is more interested in extending his contract and adhering to what the FFF wanted back in 2011 than defending his players.
Speaking of coaches, the locker room episode that was more shocking and lacked the most education in my opinion was Raymond Domenech’s following Les Bleu’s elimination in the 2008 Euro, when Domenech used the podium to ask a reporter to marry him. Marriage proposal? After a loss? Really?
I would have fired Domenech on the spot. Does a proposal for marriage show respect for your team? Was it professional for you journalist girlfriend in question who covered the team as well? To me Domenech’s display shows just as much a lack of respect for the jersey and for the sport as Nasri’s, and on top of that as a fan, it showed me the loss didn’t really hurt Domenech at all. Maybe it’s me, but I’d rather have an angry and yelling Nasri as a model; one who hates to lose, than an opportunistic fame whore looking for a podium. Vince Lombardi, the famous football of the Green Bay Packers said once “Show me a player who likes to lose and I’ll show you a loser.” By the way Domenech received a two year extension after his locker room fiasco. Nasri’s facing a two year suspension.
It’s dommage because I used to be super proud of my adoptive home country’s national team les Bleus, kind of like a Haitian taxi driver loving the New York Yankees - especially in the Euro competitions. When pitted against other teams like Spain and Germany and Italy, France looked super diverse - a team of immigrants or double-nationalities and for a two week moment, I was thrilled these guys were the icons of a country that seemed with its makeup, much more modern than the other “old Europe” teams. You also felt France was playing at an advantage because we had such a larger more diverse pool of talent to choose from. And Les Bleus were good, a lot better than they are now. And Salif Keita caputured it in his song.
Apparently others didn’t see it that way. And unfortunately, “Blanc, Beur, et Black” has been replaced by “Blanc, Boring, and Bad.”
In 2006, the late socialist politician George Frèche, who I believe was the one who let the genie out of the bottle, said this and I quote.
« Dans cette équipe, il y a neuf blacks sur onze. La normalité serait qu’il y en ait trois ou quatre. Ce serait le reflet de la société. Mais, là, s’il y en a autant, c’est parce que les blancs sont nuls. J’ai honte pour ce pays. Bientôt, il y aura onze blacks.
« On this team, there’s nine blacks our of eleven starters. In a normal world, there would be three or four. That would reflect society. But I guess if there’s so many, it’s because the whites suck. I’m ashamed of this country. Soon there will be eleven blacks. »
You’re right George. I too am ashamed of this country. I’m also ashamed of those in the Socialist party who didn’t make your ass resign the day after.
I’m also ashamed of those who followed Frèche’s lead and made a concerted effort to take blacks and Arabs off the team or to not select them at all – getting back to Frèche’s magic number of “three or four.”
I’m ashamed of those who are apparently continuing such a policy that’s selects players at 12-14 years based on racial profiling, so they can represent the country in what, a better light?
I’m ashamed of my fellow confreres in the press who need to egg on players instead of interview them in order to build tweets or others in the press who join the echo chamber of condemnation with a holier than thou disdain, or those who simply can’t just watch a game without making some stupid pseudo-socio economic theory in everything a player says afterwards.
And finally shame on those who think 25-year-old Samir Nasri is the biggest problem facing France right now. Because he isn’t.
French soccer lost in the Euro, yes, but it’s losing more in the aftermath as the Samir Nasri affair plays out. And what’s troubling is not only are we watching in real time how a collective media lynching can gain momentum without any real pause for reflection, but how an antiseptic corporate message of how we’re supposed to live and talk, work and play, win and lose (which by the way has nothing to do with the daily life you, me and many of us live) has somehow seeped into our collective conscious, making up the do’s and don’ts of the modern day social contract.
But what do I know? I’m just an immigrant big mouth who doesn’t know much about football, doesn’t really speak good French, and doesn’t know when to “fermer sa gueule.”
Un vrai manque d’éducation, quoi.