Easy to be cynical, certainly, but in this case you’d be largely wrong. While Laurent Dubois’ Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France as a whole can’t be considered a great book — for reasons I’ll delve into momentarily — it nevertheless contains passages of surpassing excellence which makes it well worth delving into.
The book is a bit of a mish-mash in that it is essentially three books in one. The first of these is an exploration of France’s colonial history through sport and in particular football. Since Dubois is a historian, it’s not surprising that this is by some distance the best of the three. In the space of about eighty pages, he manages to illuminate the long and tangled history of France’s long relationship with its colonies in Algeria, West Africa and the Caribbean. In doing so, he illuminates the role of sport in the evolution of anti-colonial and anti-racism movements in ways that few have ever rivaled.
Basically, sports – and especially team sports – have always had a strong egalitarian streak because within the timeframe and rules of a given sport or event, any larger oppression or social influence disappears. When a team of black players plays a team of white players at any sport, regardless of what other power relationships might exist off the pitch, “superiority” between the two is determined by sheer individual or team ability (which is precisely why Hitler tried to stop Jesse Owens competing and why the colour barrier in baseball took so long to fall). It’s partly for this reason that the agitation for racial equality has often had a sporting dimension; but it’s partly also because football clubs share with political parties the ability to act as both a focus and a channel for collective emotions and desires. Dubois’ exploration of this theme is nothing short of excellent.
Having made the general point about sport, equality and politics, he then goes on to describe the interplay between them in the course of the de-colonization of the French Empire. Especially poignant here is the biography of Felix Eboue, the black Guianan civil servant, who by one of those quirks of French history and politics rose so high in the colonial civil service that he became Governor of Martinique and then of Chad (though colonialism made a mockery of the words, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, they occasionally retained their meaning in some surprising ways, you see). History remembers him primarily as the man who rallied the French African colonies to the side of De Gaulle’s Free French in 1940 (for which he was rewarded with burial in the Pantheon), but he also spent much of his career organizing greater sporting opportunities for his subjects in the Caribbean and as a result left a sporting infrastructure which would nourish many athletes who would eventually come to be the heart of French sport.
The second book lurking within the covers of Soccer Empire is really the weakest, and that is the history of French football, with a major emphasis on the period between 1998 and 2006. This part of the book starts off well, performing a particularly valuable service in dispelling the idea that the 1998 Black, blanc, beur team was an unprecedented breakthrough in multiculturalism. Dubois shows adroitly that in fact les bleus have been accommodating players from outside metropolitan France for over seventy years. North Africans (or their children) have been a mainstay of the French national team since before World War II and the first black was capped for Les Bleus, Raoul Diagne (whose father Blaise was the National Assembly member from Senegal), got his call up in 1931. Indeed, the first genuinely multi-cultural French team was not the one that won in Paris in 1998 but the one that was so cruelly defeated in Sevilla in 1982.
However, the closer the book comes to the present day, the less interesting it becomes. The descriptions of public reactions to both the joyous World Cup victory of 1998 and the bemusing loss of 2006 (capped as it was by Zinedine Zidane’s iconic coup de boulle) are essentially collections of press clippings. The final chapter, an extended meditation of the possible meanings of Zidane’s head-butt, is a particularly tedious summation of much of the pseudo-intellectual masturbation that followed France’s defeat (for those genuinely interested in this subject, Ed Smith’s What Sports Tells Us About Life offers a more succinct and believable explanation about what happened on 9 July 2006).
Less forgivably, the book contains enough niggling factual errors about the sport of football itself that it puts Dubois’ credentials as an actual football fan in some question. The Heysel stadium disaster, for instance, occurred in 1985, not 1983; the famous France-Brazil match of 1986 was a quarter-final, not a semi-final, and so on and so forth. Though it’s not a hanging sin, the author is noticeably less comfortable with the actual sporting facts on the ground than he is with the nuances of colonial history.
Tying these two books together is a third book, which follows Zidane and Lilian Thuram in their life journey from the cites to the historic French teams of 1996-2006. From a narrative point of view, this makes a certain amount of sense: in the Black, blanc beur squad, Zidane was the only beur and Thurman was arguably the most talented and certainly the most outspoken of the black players. Both scored two crucial goals on the road to the 1998 triumph (Thuram in the semi-final and Zidane in the final), and both retired briefly before being coaxed back into the fold for the 2006 World Cup. And both spent at least part of their childhood in the cites, Thuram in Paris and Zidane in Marseilles. Dubois can therefore use their childhoods to look at the condition of blacks and Arabs in modern France, while at the same time looking at how their sporting careers have helped to change perceptions about what constitutes Frenchness.
The problem with this last book is that it is uneven. While Thuram has gradually transcended his role as a footballer to taken on the mantle of a political figure, Zidane’s greater status as a footballing icon has never translated into a social role because he has never shown much interest in being political. Because of Zidane’s silence, this third book is really just a long love letter to Thuram. In itself, that’s not a bad thing: Thuram is genuinely one of the most intelligent and eloquent men alive on the subject of race and tolerance, and his repeated showdowns with Jean-Marie LePen, Nicolas Sarkozy and other law-and-order politicians in France are a joy to read.
But the imbalance within the third book unbalances the book as a whole. Having set up Thuram and Zidane as the twin ethnic pillars on which to make a narrative bridge between France’s colonial history and the remarkable story of the French national team between 1998 and 2006, he has to give them equal time. When it comes to Thuram, it works well because he personally contributed not only to les bleus success but was also a major actor in the country’s political evolution as well. But when it comes to Zidane…well, there was that headbutt, wasn’t there? And right there, the narrative comes crashing down as Dubois gets pushed on to, as it were, his weaker foot and has to talk about the football rather than the politics.
This book is worth reading for its first couple of chapters on sport and politics and on France’s complicated colonial history and its present-day reverberations, which are undoubtedly superb. And it’s worth reading for a greater understanding of the brilliance and eloquence of Lilian Thuram (and pray the man enters electoral politics one day). The football bits, admittedly, are a weak point. But if you followed Les bleus in 1998, you know that the football was only part of the story; it was also but about the joyous, beautiful way that so many people from so many backgrounds could, briefly, transcend their differences to become united in support of a team that seemed to embody the best of a troubled country. On this vital topic, Dubois nails it. Even in a year which is crowded with football books, Soccer Empire stands out as one of the best.