- Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France
On June 17, 2010, I watched Mexico beat France 2-0 in a World Cup match at Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane, South Africa. It was a memorable victory for Mexico, of course, as thousands of Mexican fans raucously celebrated in this small town 200 kilometers from the border with Zimbabwe. Also memorable that night, for me at least, was the sight of disgruntled French players bickering amongst themselves and with their hapless coach. It was an astonishing transformation for a European nation that had reached the 2006 World Cup final and a decade or so earlier had dominated word soccer. “What happened to France? Who are the French?” I wondered as I left the stadium.
When I returned home a few days later, a copy of Soccer Empire was waiting in my mailbox ready to help me think more deeply about these questions. Written by the award-winning historian Laurent Dubois, a specialist of the French Empire in the Caribbean, it explores aspects of the history and culture of football in France; including sources and the secondary literature in French and English, Soccer Empire grapples with weighty questions about race, national identity, and community belonging. [End Page 316]
The book is organized around a preface, introduction, eleven narrative chapters, and an epilogue. “Football, like France itself, was the product of empire,” it argues. “And that represented not just a shackle, but also the possibility of emancipation” (p. 174). Chapter 1 focuses on the central role of the French in internationalizing soccer and the origins of the French national team’s cultural diversity. Baron Pierre DeCoubertin and other elite Frenchmen were great builders of sport institutions and competitions. Like the International Olympic Committee, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, was founded in Paris (in 1904), and Jules Rimet created the World Cup (first staged in 1930). The migration of Caribbean and African players to the colonial metropolis is discussed in Chapter 1 and continues into Chapter 2, which examines the “Caribbeanization” of French football and society after 1960. Dubois deftly shows how players, fans, and organizers in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana worked relentlessly to develop the game locally and then aptly negotiated the contradiction of being simultaneously Caribbean and French. In the 1970s and 1980s, outstanding soccer players like Marius Trésor, among others, “powerfully asserted that Antilleans were a part of the French nation,” and also “inspired pride among Antilleans” (p. 67).
Chapter 3 introduces the remarkable figure of Lilian Thuram, the most successful French defensive player of all time. Born in Guadeloupe in 1972, Thuram moved to France with his family in 1980 and grew up in a proletarian suburb—a banlieue—outside Paris. From this point on, Soccer Empire pivots around the biographies of Thuram and Zinedine Zidane, a soccer genius born (also in 1972) in Marseilles of Algerian parents. Chapter 4 traces the roots of the world-beating side of the late 1990s. It provides interesting details about the lives of Marcel Desailly, the son of a French father and Ghanaian mother, and Christian Karembeu, born in the Pacific territory of New Caledonia and whose great-grandfather was exhibited in a kind of human zoo at the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris. Desailly, Karembeu, and their compatriots enriched the French World Cup team and symbolized the country’s growing racial diversity and inclusivity in certain areas of society. However, the visibility of black players in the national team sparked a backlash from the Right, which fiercely politicitized French football and brought the game into the forefront of national politics.
Chapter 5 considers France’s triumph in the 1998 World Cup on home soil with special attention devoted to Thurman’s performance, on and off the field. The defender’s two goals in a 2-1 comeback victory against upstart Croatia in the semifinal prompted one observer to call him “The Messiah” (p. 122). The analysis of 1998 extends into Chapter...