What I remember most is the feeling of surprise: surprise that so many people were talking about the same thing, and also with such passion, as if what happened was a political issue.
The woman who rented me a room spoke about it, the students spoke, the teachers spoke, and everyone had an opinion on what Jean-Marie Le Pen, president of the National Front, had said.
It was the month of July 1996;
A fortnight earlier, after the French soccer team had qualified for the Eurocup semi-final, Le Pen had attacked the soccer players for not singing La Marseillaise, suggesting that the team was "artificial" because it was full of "foreigners." and threatened to "review his situation" when he became president.
It was a racist attack, of course,
and he conveniently forgot that every player on that team—all but one: Ghanaian-born Marcel Desailly—had been born in France or in French colonies.
Aimé Jacquet, the coach, reacted well: "I don't answer to a clown."
But the clown kept talking.
In front of a microphone he made an inventory of what he considered, by all accounts, second-rate Frenchmen.
“Lamouchi is a Tunisian born in France;
Loko, a Congolese born in France;
Zidane, an Algerian born in France;
Djorkaeff, French-born Armenian.
And he concluded: "It would be good to find players in France."
The declarations of the emboldened far-right continued to make noise for a long time, and later, in the middle of a march for the rights (or papers) of immigrants, I saw more than one carrying banners with the emblem of the selection, the photos or the names of the players, while people chanted: “First, second, third generation!
We are all children of immigrants!”
And soon after, during the last summer I spent in Paris,
I've been reminiscing about those days now that the French far right has returned to expressing its opinion on soccer, or using soccer to talk about its racist idea of France.
Éric Zemmour, a xenophobic and anti-Semite who wanted to occupy the space of the extremists –since Marine Le Pen is making desperate attempts to wash the face of the National Front, after so many years of electoral failures– spoke indignantly the other day of the French Moroccan origin that, according to him, would celebrate the victory of Morocco.
“How would the King of Morocco react,” he asked, “if thousands of Frenchmen came to Marrakech to celebrate France's victory?”
The comments had no other objective than to stir up racial tensions and the ghosts of nationalism, an always advantageous strategy when the tensions are real: and they are.
Well, as always or almost always happens in the World Cups, today's game is much more than a game.
The Moroccan team, which has gone further than anyone expected, has also become a flag or lightning rod for many causes in our globalized world: Arab, African, Muslim, post-colonial.
As football is inevitably political, although that shocks the people at FIFA so much, it was impossible for the journey that Morocco has traveled not to be pointed out.
The victories against Belgium, Spain and Portugal, as anyone will understand, are easy to turn into a metaphor for the colonialist relations between Europe and Africa.
And that is complicated and terribly interesting: because the vast majority of Moroccan players were not born in Morocco, but in that Europe.
The coach, Walid Regragui, was born in France,
same as Saiss, the captain;
Munir El Haddadi was born in El Escorial, and Hakimi, the author of the penalty that eliminated Spain, was born in Madrid.
In the capitals of these European countries, in sometimes harsh neighborhoods where conflicts are not always resolved, lives a diaspora that has celebrated past matches with emotions that are much more complex, more ambiguous and less classifiable than the West would like;
and, as soccer always has a dark side and does not choose what it reflects, but reflects everything, the tensions accumulated for more reasons than fit on this page –social, racial, religious, some that are not anything like that or that they are everything at the same time – have sometimes turned into violence.
This happened in several Belgian cities after the game, to the great happiness of the extreme right, which used and will continue to use the excesses of the violent (as Zemmour did) to apply the manual of the perfect populist: the
them against us
, the internal enemy, the war of identities in which so many fall so easily.
Soccer also brings out the darker side of everything.
So it is now and so it has always been.
The question is who uses it, and for what.
The irony of the Zemmour case, as well as that of that Jean-Marie Le Pen who in 2006 complained that there were too many colored players in the French team, is that today's team is largely built with the children or grandchildren of African immigrants: Mbappé and Tchouaméni, to give just two examples, are descendants of Cameroonians.
It is not impossible to read the two teams that face each other today as the two sides of the same coin: there are players who grew up in the same neighborhood and this afternoon they will play with different shirts.
The Moroccan team will play men who could have, by chance or will, have represented France;
the reverse is somewhat the same.
For a certain French right, obsessed with a country that is less and less white, this circumstance is a source of inexhaustible anxieties:
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