May 16th, 2011
11:08 AM ET

French talent drain no reason for black and white approach

Laurent Blanc was recently at the center of a race quota row that rocked French football.
Laurent Blanc was recently at the center of a race quota row that rocked French football.

French football was recently rocked by a racial quota row which saw a football federation official suspended and national team coach Laurent Blanc interrogated by the country’s sports ministry.

Both men were at a meeting where introducing a limit on the number of black and Arab players at the nation’s training academies was discussed. A recording of the meeting was leaked to a website and the rest, as they say, is history.

Blanc was cleared of any wrongdoing in the subsequent investigation held by the French Football Federation (FFF), with the governing body stating it had renewed its "full confidence" in the coach of Les Bleus. Blanc himsef admitted using language that may have been "offensive to some sensibilities."

For me, there were two issues behind the headlines that are worthy of further analysis. The first being how to stop a drain of youth talent leaving the system before realizing its potential in the national side. The second, how merit should always trump race.

At a meeting held in November of last year, French football officials expressed their frustration at the number of players with foreign roots who - having shown promise at the nation’s top academies - then turned their back on France, opting instead to play for countries where their parents were born.

There is a straightforward economic argument put forward by the FFF here: if a nation is investing resources into developing young talented players, many of whom represent France at youth level, it is fair to expect loyalty in return. The hope would be that they do not to turn their backs on the system they benefited from.

Sebastien Bassong is one such player the FFF may regret having lost. The 24 year old was born in France to Cameroonian parents. He showed promise as a footballer and was enrolled in the Clairefontaine Academy, arguably the best in the country. He got room and board, benefited from the best infrastructure available in France, represented France at various youth tournaments, yet when the time came to pick a country to play for, he opted for the Indomitable Lions.

The country you call your own is often a decision made by the heart, and who is to question Bassong's reasoning? However, the FFF argued there were too many cases like Bassong's, where talent nurtured in a French academy had left to represent other shores at senior level.

This trend may well be happening, and not just in France, but the notion that a racial quota could solve this is an abhorrent idea.

Merit should be the sole factor on which men are judged for national honors, not the color of their skin. Especially if you consider that racial tensions, in the national team and in France more widely, has long been an issue at the top of the news agenda.

This idea should not have been discussed. By becoming a topic of everyday conversation within the coaching team it was only a matter of time before it created controversy, as it did when leaked.

I believe the system needs to change. For example, if a player enrols in a national training program, then he should have to sign a contract to represent that country at senior level. This way, there would be no gray areas and no hurt feelings. If a young player wasn’t sure of what he wanted to do, then he should try to get the development support from somewhere else. In my view this would make it fair for everyone involved.

What is strange to me is that a racial quota would even be discussed in a country like France. Their league is one of the most multi-cultural in the world, where players from their former colonies in Africa seem to thrive. Furthermore, their national team has a great history of stars with foreign roots. In the squad that won the World Cup in 1998, over half of the players selected by Aime Jacquet had parents born in countries outside France.

Maybe there is a way forward for academy systems in France and elsewhere to reform so that the amount of nurtured talent being lost is minimized. But what should remain absolute is that no-one treats selection as a numbers game which tries to balance out white and black.

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Filed under:  Football
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. arti

    Good commentary, Pedro!
    One question tough: in the new system you suggest, do you foresee an involvement of the UEFA/FIFA?

    May 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  2. lefthog

    This is a big scandal. And it should be punished accordingly.

    The example Pedro gives also shows that this policy is unneccessary. France is a big name in international football. Its national team wants to challenge for trophies every two years. You need top class players to do that. And here is my point. Sebastien Bassong is not a world class player. He is pretty good but not top class.
    There is a good chance he switched countries because he could not get into Les Bleus. That happens quite often. The Algerian teams at the World Cup was full of french born and bred players. Only the best of those would have maybe sneaked into the French teams that flopped in South Africa.
    I cannot think of too many world class players that switched allegiance away from the country that helped develope them. Didier Drogba might be an example but he came to France when he was already 15 and did not become a world class footballer after well into his 20s.
    The best talentss usually get called up rather early and then the question of allegiance never comes up (Karim Benzema is a great example for that – he knew he had an excellent to get into the French side and so turned down Algerian offers).

    May 16, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  3. sonko84

    Well written and no further comments needed here...

    May 17, 2011 at 10:28 am | Reply
  4. Raju

    Using Cameroon as an example, when a foreign country such as Cameroon sponsors one of their student overseas for graduate education using scholarships meant to serve a certain prupose, they expect that student to return and serve their country. If that student does not return, then Cameroon penalizes that student.

    I think it is more of a matter of resources. There are only certain amount of resources, and if these kids do not want to serve the country that is investing in them, than they need to pay back all that was invested into them. Yes he is talented, but Sebastien Bassong would not be where he is, and would not be playing for Cameroon, if not for the French academies largesse.

    I think this is only fair, as France is trying to build talent for France. I am from South East Asia, and my country penalizes us severely, if we do not return when we are under their national scholarship studying abroad.

    May 17, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  5. NewsAnalyzer

    Hello my fellow soccer/football friends,

    1. This is a very interesting topic.

    2. My take on this "switch countries" issue goes like this.

    3. Sport is NOT Military. There is no treason involved, when deciding to "switch".

    4. As a "skilled worker", let's say doctor, engineer, soccer coach, professor, etc...If, let's say "Dubai or Saudi Arabia, etc..." offers you a good deal (double salary, no taxes, etc...), most people here in the USA, will move (with their skills) to another country.

    5. France, as an "occupying power of the past", needed immigration to France for Jobs, war against the Nazis, etc...This caused many African/Arab parents to move to France.

    6. The children of these "Immigrants" have dual citizenship, French/Algerian/Cameron, etc...

    7. From a legal point of view, there is no betrayal to France. If Algeria or Cameron pays a player $1 million to play for Algeria/Cameron, then, let France compete at the "money, incentive" level and offer a "competitive" package to win back their players.

    8. There are ONLY 11 players in a French soccer team (not counting substitutes). There are hundreds/thousands of "skilled" soccer players with duel nationalities. Do the math! Supply and Demand!

    Love, peace, and Freedom to All!

    May 17, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  6. KIPSTER

    This is the statement is the most sensible solution to this problem as indicated in the article

    " ....... the system needs to change. For example, if a player enrols in a national training program, then he should have to sign a contract to represent that country at senior level. This way, there would be no gray areas and no hurt feelings. If a young player wasn’t sure of what he wanted to do, then he should try to get the development support from somewhere else. In my view this would make it fair for everyone involved ".

    May 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  7. doote

    Nice insight, but common Pedro: “…if a player enrols in a national training program, then he should have to sign a contract to represent that country at senior level”

    Some of the players enter the training programs at a relatively young age of 12. It would be ludicrous to oblige them to sign binding contracts at this age.
    I think the ‘problem’ has been relatively blown out of proportion. A lot of the European countries have similar programs with similar ‘problems’. Most of the players would represent their adopted countries if they thought they had a genuine chance of being selected to the senior team, and even if they choose to leave, I don’t think it’s too big a price to pay for developing talent that would have otherwise gone ‘unnurtured’.

    May 17, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  8. joe

    Unfortunately, race is the only way to quickly solve this problem. Of course, unless you want to become like the US where entire races and ethnic groups "specialize" in a sport or profession. Most French Children are spending time being "French." They don't divert their entire existence to sport and so many talented French are never even observed. Instead, the immigrant and poor children spend their days playing football where their talent is being observed. Whereas you have the French youth doing their homework, trying to evolve within French society which has a variety of priorities. Many Africans and Arabs are are not really French in the heart, by their own admission- they leave, don't invest this effort and so this is an unfair advantage at every level for True French.

    May 17, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  9. Roberto

    I don't know why people make such a big deal

    In Mexico we have "quotas" on nationality in football and it works just fine. It's sad that French people don't have the opportunity to play in their own country

    May 17, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Reply
  10. jomamasz

    Merit should always trump race?

    Should merit always trump gender?

    HYPOCRITE: US schools must spend 1/2 their athletic budget on GIRLS.

    IS THAT SEXIST?

    AMERICANS ARE COMPLETE HYPOCRITES.

    May 17, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Reply
  11. Atia

    Cameroon and other African countries have contributed a lot for French football and they still want more and more. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. France is taking advantage of the poverty it has inflicted on Africans to snatch their best talents. It is just fair that intelligent guys like Bassong start hearing the ancestral call. Look at who is complaining. There are thousands of Cameroonian medical doctors, lawyers, engineers etc who went to Europe on govenment scholarship and failed to return. They are working in France and other European coutries. these are students sponsored with Cameroonian taxpayers money serving France and Europe when we have thousands die in cameroon of common diseases because there are no doctors in health centres. If we try to calculate the ratio of the loss of talent, it is scandalously in favour of France.

    May 17, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  12. alehandro

    I think this article misses the point. The French were talking about a quota based on race not nationality. For example, Blanc and company didn't suggest excluding white kids with dual French/Swiss nationality from the system, only black and arab kids regardless of their national origins. That's a racist exclusion policy as it works on the premise that you can't be black or arabic and truly French. Had the FFF been worried about players in general defecting to other nations after being coached in France they would have put the focus on dual nationals of ANY ethnic background. That would still have been discriminatory but it would not have been racist. And that's the crux of the matter, because if the FFF wants Les Bleus to be predominantly white then the opportunities for blacks and arabs will be unfairly restricted whether they commit to France as youth players or not.

    May 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  13. LeFrench

    You should check your facts.
    The quotas were not about ethnic origins or skin color, but about young trainees with double nationality, to avoid investing too much time and money into kids, that, once grown up, could use their training for another national team than France's.

    I don't say that nothing racist was said by people of the FFF, but quotas of young trainees based on nationality is way different than quotas on skin color or ethnical origins. Why on earth any country should train for free the future athletes of competing countries ?

    Question: how does the US soccer federation handles the young bi-nationals when they have to choose what kids to train ?

    May 17, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Reply
  14. Zoran Zuze

    I think Pedro, well argued as his piece is, is missing the central point. I believe there are three issues in focus:

    1. Why do black and Arab players that have been born and bred in France even entertain the thought of representing another country ? One's place of birth and rearing is an important part of a person's life and it takes very extreme circumstances to separate any person from such.

    In the case of France, I think there is an increasing feeling by black and Arab Frenchmen that they are only seen as useful to France for their sporting ability and, in all other walks of French life, are treated as second class citizens. They therefore do not see why they should wear the colours of a country that, though acknowledging their sporting ability, does not regard them as equals in virtually all other aspects of life.

    I think the real solution to the problem of French developed players playing for other national teams lies in confronting in a very concerted way, the alienation in French society that black and Arab French citizens feel.

    2. How come nobody complains as much when the roles are reversed, i.e. when young kids are taken from Africa developed in France (or elsewhere in Europe) and turn out for their adopted countries ? Patrick Viera is perhaps the best example of this. What gives France more of a right to these players than their country of ancestry ? Talent does have to be nurtured for sure to reach its full potential. But, talent is talent and if France have to look outside France (and/or the ranks of indigenous Frenchmen) to find it, then it is the French who should be paying something back to the country where that talent originates from and not the other way round.

    3. Players turning out for countries other than the countries where they were born and raised is not a new phenomenon in football. One only has to look at the increasing numbers of Argentine footballers of Italian decent choosing to turn out for Italy. Giuseppe Rossi (born and bred in the US) playing for Italy is another.

    The fact is national team football is not as different to other forms of professional football in some respects. If a player feels he has better opportunities playing for a country other than that where he was born and raised, he will more than likely take them.

    May 17, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  15. usa4ever

    who cares

    soccer sucks

    May 17, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  16. Beam Me Up

    Quota's are not new to South African sport. So we do not see it as strange at all.

    The Quota system is applicable to all sports in South Africa as so impossed by the government.

    May 17, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  17. frank

    Why are you people fighting?Take your decision France and let me warn you people all AFRICAN countries gonna defeat you including Chad because without Africa France is nothing.Being a talent is a gift of nature just like Land and Air and we are talented.The French should also allow us in peace not installing dictators all over Africa.

    May 17, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  18. Kristian

    Don't know how it came up... Ha. It came up because France is currently lead by an ultra-conservative party which breads racism, and elderly French persons are often already racist anyway. You realize it doesn't say persons born to foreign parents it says blacks and Arabs, regardless of their parental allegiance. No problems with whites whom have other European roots just blacks and Arabs.

    May 17, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  19. Tom

    I guess France needs to figure out what constitutes a Frenchman. 'Race' seems like an irrelevant indicator in this age of jet travel and multi-culturalism.

    May 17, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  20. peeDiddy

    Rather than a binding contract, the players should sign a contract of first refusal, i.e. France has first pickings. If France rejects a player, then the player is free to choose other countries. It is absurd to keep expecting France to pick up the tab for developing the teams of their old colonies.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  21. napoleon

    This issue points to a more endemic problem,the glaring disillusion of the French Youth with the French social system.A system which alienates them,reminds them they are not completely French and yet the FFF is surprised when they choose to play for the countries of their parents.They may have been born in France but they don't "feel French" so they go the elsewhere

    May 18, 2011 at 12:33 am | Reply
  22. phanatic

    "Merit should be the sole factor on which men are judged"

    Couldn't agree more. In or out of sport.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:56 am | Reply
  23. Larry

    You've made fair points but ignored the major drive for players who choose to play for other countries. They simply want to play international football and stand a better chance of playing for those countries than they do for france. Its not an easy one to find a solution for.

    The truth is this, the best of those players often play for France, its those who cannot make the national team that look elsewhere for international football, every player wants to play in a world cup, case in point the Boateng brothers, Germany was always their first choice, the younger one only decided to play for Ghana only after he didn't make th German squad.

    In all, its a real tough one, and all sides of the argument makes sense, except the unspoken one, we all know what that is.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:18 am | Reply
  24. brofmfa

    Great analysis by NewsAnalyzer. All for that I'm.
    Furthermore, all the supports toward their training unnecessarily be rewarded onto national team but the football league they are playing.
    To play for whatever national team has never been purpose of their training. They were trained to play prosessional football in Europe.

    May 18, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply
  25. Beaujolais

    Top players will always choose to play for France. It's only the second string players like Bassong, who choose to play for the African countries. Just for the simple reason that playing for France gives them a bigger opportunity to play on a World Cup, play themselves in the picture, make a lucrative transfer etcetera.

    France therefor should not at all be worried.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  26. Stephen Gyamera Benefo

    All true Religions believe in A SUPREME BEING who created us all.Our COLOUR DIFFERENCES is a test of how we use our intellect to DEVELOP MANKIND.May the ALMIGHTY richly BLESS us all.

    May 22, 2011 at 10:12 am | Reply
  27. GDanile

    I think i agree with alehandro
    there are many facets of multi nationality combinations in france. french german, english french etc. a quota system is to create restriction on the number of entries into Nation team/ FFF, based on race. the french/ fff are dancing around the issue now after they got caught. because it doesn't make sense when on one side you complain about the talent drain and on the other you are trying to create a race quota system. em i the only one seeing the contradiction here? if you find yourself in a situation were you need talent you take whatever is available. the true is there are more Africa french players willing to play for france and these that don't is because they didn't make the cut. the real issue is that the french people non African feel the team is full of too many emigrants and black/Arabs that they need to introduce a quota system so they can bring in more white player,and thats the truth. it the fear that they feel they need to control this. that real french people are well represented

    if they can't make the cut by merit then get them in by race quota?

    Sorry our quota of the Africa heritage player is already filled :)

    May 31, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Reply

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