PARIS — “Defeated by chaos,” “Disaster,” “Journey to hell and back.”
The headlines would be funny if their meaning didn’t carry real implications for France. They reference, of course, the country’s humiliating first-round elimination from the World Cup, an outcome caused by a Molotov cocktail of big egos, large salaries, and lack of national pride on the part of the players. World Cup fever still reigns in France, but alas it’s not the delirium of dreams. Instead, it’s a frenzy built of disillusionment and vituperative bitterness. Newspapers are just the beginning; even President Sarkozy called a special meeting to discuss the situation.
The flop potential of Les Bleus was first hinted at in their third preparatory match before the actual Cup began, when they lost to China. My host father turned off the match in disgust and said something along the lines of, “this doesn’t bode well.” Indeed, France went on to tie Uruguay, and then lost to Mexico.
I watched that match on a giant screen at the “FIFA FanFest” area set up under the Eiffel Tower (nice view). The place was absolutely packed, but among the rowdy crowd there almost seemed to be more Mexican that French supporters. Even more surprising was the number of Algerian flags, knotted around young men’s necks like capes. Here they were, in Paris, presumably born in France, watching France — and yet they didn’t root for France.
By the time les Bleus faced off against South Africa on the 22nd, most people had already lost interest and pride. I don’t totally blame them — the team had imploded, refusing to practice as protest against the expulsion, by Coach Raymond Domenech, of one of its players (I won’t go into much detail here, as the story is all over the media). The captain refused to sing the national anthem.
Nonetheless, I found it rather upsetting that the public at the FanFest arena booed when the camera panned to Domenech. When South Africa won, most of our fellow match-watchers erupted in joy.
What happened? In 1998, the team was fondly referred to as “Black-blanc-beur,” or “black-white-arab,” a nod to its diverse makeup. When they won the Cup, it seemed a victory for the new, ethnically varied French identity. A friend’s host mother said she couldn’t go out into the streets for weeks without being hugged by her joyful countrymen. Now, the comportment of the players — 13 out of 22 of whom are from immigrant backgrounds — brings into question how strong that national identity actually is. I suppose it remains to be seen if the lack of patriotism belonged simply to one group of bratty football players, or if it is an indicator of the situation of immigration and society in France in general.
Since the Cup started, I’ve been fascinated by the “Algeria Factor.” As I’ve mentioned, Algeria fans (until Algeria’s elimination — thanks to a last-minute defeat by the US!) were by far the most visible fans of any team, arriving at the FanFest arena hours before matches, faces painted and flag capes waving. Of the 5 or 6 Algerian men I talked to, all barmen at various cafes where I watched a few matches, every one — whether born in France or Algeria — supported Algeria. My friend’s host brother, born in France of a French mother and Tunisian father, and calling himself French, was also supporting Algeria. I’m sorry Algeria is out of the running because I would have loved to see how an Algerian victory was greeted by people here; it would have made an interesting contrast, I think, to the utter failure of France.
One lesson learned from the approximately 14 hours of soccer I have watched over the past week: “football” really does have the power to both divide and to unite, to humiliate as well as to burnish national pride. I’m sad for France, and concerned by the cracks in what has seemed to me (from my Metro observations of cultural co-existence, at least) a society that welcomes immigrants, and in which those immigrants are happy to belong.
But I have also been made proud of my own country, which is not a feeling I have often experienced. The spark with which the US played these first two rounds of the Cup brought us a little closer to the rest of the football-obsessed world, I think. I will always remember the feeling of quiet satisfaction that passed over me when one of the Algerian men with whom we were watching the US-Algeria match began to root for the US towards the end of the game, when the determination to win on their part was just so gloriously evident.
If we can get them to root for us in soccer, maybe there’s hope…