French football caught offside in new race controversy

Willy Sagnol has been accused of ‘laid-back, anti-black racism’. EPA/Etienne Laurent

French football has again become embroiled in controversy following comments by Bordeaux manager Willy Sagnol about black African players. In a question-and-answer session with readers of a regional newspaper, Sagnol initially suggested that he intended to sign fewer African players than his predecessors. He explained that this was due to the scheduling of the African Nations Cup, meaning that he would be deprived of certain African players during the tournament every other year.

But in the same session, Sagnol employed what appeared to be a racist stereotype to describe African players – and unsurprisingly this provoked greater anger. He described the “typical African player” as being “not expensive, generally ready to battle, what you can call powerful on the pitch”. Sagnol then qualified these comments by adding: “Football is not just about that, you also need technique, intelligence and discipline.” He continued: “You need everything, you need North European players too.” He thinks this is the case because “Northern European players have a good mentality”.

Since making these comments, Sagnol has been supported by Bordeaux’s president Jean-Louis Triaud who has said on French radio that “Willy Sagnol is anything but racist”. But Triaud himself appeared to endorse some of Sagnol’s comments by saying that African players in France “obviously work hard physically but lack a tactical level, tactical intelligence”. French anti-racist group SOS Racisme have branded Sagnol’s comments “laid-back, anti-black racism”.

An old story

Reactions to Sagnol’s comments suggest that those in power in French football are continuing to adopt a casual approach to alleged discrimination and racial slurs against African footballers. This is nothing new. In 2011, the French online investigative magazine Médiapart accused senior figures at the French Football Federation (FFF) of seeking to limit the number of black and Arab players at French youth academies.

These 2011 discussions at the FFF were motivated by concerns about the numbers of players who were trained in France but then decided to play international football for another country. During the exchanges, France’s then national team boss Laurent Blanc allegedly contrasted the strength and power of African players with the supposed attributes of others which were “more compatible with our culture”.

The most recent controversy suggests that French football is failing to learn the lessons of the past when it comes to discussing race. One must wonder how much Sagnol recalls of the 2011 controversy involving Laurent Blanc given that a press release from his club says he reacted with “incredulity” to the controversy surrounding his own recent comments.

In the fall-out of Sagnol’s comments, FFF president Noël Le Graët has argued that “the composition of the Bordeaux team line-ups that he has been selecting this season” provide sufficient reason to believe that Sagnol is not racist. Former Olympique Marseille president Pape Diouf, however, has called on African players in France to boycott an upcoming round of league matches.

Earlier this year, football’s world governing body FIFA were accused of not taking a tough enough approach to discriminatory behaviour by a member of their own executive committee. And the president of the Italian football association Carlo Tavecchio has also just been banned from holding any FIFA position for six months after allegedly racist comments about “banana-eating” African players. 2014 may well go down as a year when racism in football frequently made headlines. As well as making anti-racism videos aimed at fans, it is perhaps time for governing bodies to also focus more efforts on educating coaches and administrators.