Before the World Cup match between Spain and France, Spain fans blurted monkey chants at the French team mocking its diverse players. In a separate incident, a Spanish coach used racist rhetoric to describe Thierry Henry in an attempt to “motivate” his own player. After the incident, Henry not only convinced Nike to create armbands expressing intolerance to racism, but initiated the Stand Up Speak Up campaign to combat racism. Despite this war on racism, the French national team certainly has not been free from racism on the home front.
In 1998, French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen expressed his thoughts regarding the multicultural French team – conveying it had “too many players of color” that failed to reflect Frenchness. The French team nonetheless claimed the World Cup that year, and that victory eased some of the emotional heat from France’s constant racial frictions.
The French team is a true reflection of France, which includes many who have ancestral roots in former French colonies and elsewhere. Le Pen bears a history of torturing Algerians, using anti-Semitic rhetoric and harboring racist views. But his extreme racism and anti-immigration views are welcomed by many in France. Although defeated, he continued to hold a significant number of votes against Jacques Chirac in 2002 – signifying that many in France are accepting of this blatant racism. Contributing to this defeat were the noble efforts of Marcel Desailly and Zinedine Zidane. The now-retired Zidane is the son of Algerian immigrants, representing a struggling population rejected by France.
The Zidane head-butting incident in the final match is unfortunate, but it is a somewhat appropriate ending to a World Cup tournament characterized by bad officiating, aggression and too many red cards. Despite this lapse, Zidane’s role in fighting against racism, his role as a successful political agent in France and his inspiration to youths of the working class and immigrant populations everywhere cannot be forgotten. As many fans like to claim, Zidane literally crawled from the depths of poverty and surfaced as a world-class hero.