Sociology of The World Cup – Defeat by Ethnicity

Denis Colombi is right to recommend this column by Marwan Mohammed and Laurent Mucchielli. As they state, it didn’t take long for some French right-wing philosopher (and yes, we have a few of them, each one more pathetic and intellectually bankrupt than the next) to blame the poor performance of the French team at the World Cup on the assigned ethnicity of its members… i.e.: not enough whites.

To paraphrase Mohammed and Mucchielli, in 1998, when France triumphed at the World Cup, everyone celebrated the multiethnic team (“black, blanc, beur”). And even though the 2006 World Cup final ended with Zidane’s headbutt, it was all forgiven and seen as motivated (Zidane had to defend his honor). But then comes the 2010 fiasco, and all of a sudden, ethnicity, essentialized and forcibly assigned, explains everything.

So, from this idiotic perspective, defeat (now recast as not only as sportive but also as moral) is the result of ethnic and religious divisions and their supposed moral attributes: thuggish and mafia-like morality and lack of patriotism. This French team, once seen as a miracle of integration, now is seen as populated by delinquents from the suburban projects. What else could explain the rout. A soft version of this has been disseminated throughout the media.

This attitude reflects what Amartya Sen (2006) calls a solitarist approach to identity (a metastasis of The Clash of Civilizations), that is, assigning individuals to one identity and using this assignment as explanatory principle for all behaviors. This forced assignment is quite often done to minorities. It is a form of symbolic violence and it is a source of very real interpersonal violence.

Let me quote Sen:

“The politics of global confrontation is frequently seen as a corollary of religious and cultural divisions in the world. Indeed, the world is increasingly seen, if only implicitly, as a federation of religions or civilizations, thereby ignoring all the other ways in which people see themselves. Underlying this line of thinking is the odd presumption that the people of the world can be uniquely categorized according to some singular and overarching system of partitioning. Civilizational or religious partitioning of the world population yields a ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members  of exactly one group.


A solitarist approach can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world.


Violence is promoted by the cultivation of a sense of inevitability about some allegedly unique – often belligerent – identity that we are supposed to have and which apparently makes extensive demands on us (sometimes of a most disagreeable kind). The imposition of an allegedly unique identity is a often a crucial component of the ‘martial art’ of fomenting sectarian confrontation.

Unfortunately, many well-intentioned attempts to stop such violence is also handicapped by the perceived absence of choice about our identities, and this can seriously damage our ability to defeat violence. When the prospects of good relations among different human beings are seen (as they increasingly are) primarily in terms of ‘amity among civilizations,’ or ‘dialogue between religious groups,’ or ‘friendly relations between different communities’ (ignoring the great many different ways in which people relate to each other), a serious miniaturization of human beings precedes the devised programs for peace.” (xii-xiii)

Emphases mine. Sen here dismisses both the clash of civilizations-types of explanations as well as identity political movements (such as new social movements based on identity).

And this is what is happening with the use of ethnicity to explain the French defeat (and implicitly exonerate the real White French people involved, mainly, the manager, coaches and Federation representatives).

Not only that but such a solitarist approach, by definition, cannot be concerned with facts and realities of individuals within groups. As Mohammed nad Mucchielli note, there are currently 10 “white ethnics” in the French team (are they completely blameless?), and 13 blacks, 7 of them are from non-metropolitan territories and 6 are from African background. And out of the 23 selected to the national team, only 5 were from suburban projects. And from a religious perspective, most players have not declared any affiliation. Sarcastically, the authors note that, thank goodness, there were no Arabs on the team, otherwise, the commentaries would be even more vile.

But what matters here is, for Mohammed and Mucchielli, the racial obsession in the political and media discourse, again, this reduction (miniaturization as Sen states) of people’s behaviors to their “origins”. This is not only odious but also extremely dangerous because, from this perspective, anyone with a skin darker than white is reduced to a dangerous stereotype that negates individuality and plurality. This is a form of contempt that used to be applied to the working class (“classes laborieuses, classes dangereuses”) that has been racialized.

Moreover, this racial obsession obstructs any alternative analysis of the World Cup defeat, those that, for years have indicated the systemic dysfunctions and faulty leadership within the team. It is much easier (and for some, more satisfying) to just fantasize about gangs, religious thugs and suburban mafiosi from North Africa rather than examine the inherent difficulties of managing a national team from a structural and group-dynamic point of view.

One thought on “Sociology of The World Cup – Defeat by Ethnicity

  1. The French team behaved like this because they are a bunch of spoiled kids, pawns in a professional football system which is completely rotten. The world cup epitomizes the wildest aspects of capitalism: a poor country, South Africa, with 5 billion debts so that millionaires wearing the same short and t-shirt can try to put at the end of a lawn a leather ball made by forced Chinese workers (Pakistani children have been fired). I don’t care if they’re black, brown or pink/orange like me. The fact is that they have more interest earning millions in Bayern München and Chelsea than playing here as gladiators. The FIFA is the problem, and then of course, at the national level, the FFF. But if you look at the Olympics or at the UEFA Cup, you see that the whole sport done in competition has been swallowed and instrumentalized by capitalism. Competitions are totalitarian experience per se, Berlin 1936 = Moscow 1980 = LA 1984 = Beijing 2008.
    Now, if you we look at the French team in a sociological perspective, I must confess that in my view they should not require a mandatory halal buffet when the whole team is invited. See the statement by one of the player, “Dhorasoo”, in Le Monde 22/06/2010 (+ I don’t care if they believe in any god (with big beard or no face), or astrology (like Domenech) or other kinds of supersistions. Neverthelss, if they are alcoholic, drud-addicted (cocaine is widespread but doping is still a taboo in football) or religious, they should be placative about it. The “Laïcité” should be kept in mind.

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