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The French Football Federation is to launch an investigation into claims of institutional racism at the highest national level. Senior coaches including national coach Laurent Blanc, stand accused of wanting to secretly limit the proportion of black and North African players at regional youth training systems, including the prestigious Clairefontaine facility, to 30%. Not only is the move, if found to be true, inherently racist but it also attacks the French football system which has garnered them such success on the pitch in recent years. On top of this, and where this policy was truly aimed, it would limit the number of African players who go through the French national youth system only to represent their country of birth, or their parents’ country of birth at senior level.

The defining moment for French football

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The French team that achieved so much in winning the World Cup on home soil in ’98 and then the European Championship in ’00 was built on the principle of ‘Black, Blanc, Beur.’ It was a testament to France’s multicultural society unifying under the tricolour. With this new approach from some of the country’s leading coaches though it is clear those days are long gone.

However despite being reflective of current problems within French society, the real victim here will be African football. As the real aim of the quota is not to try and whiten ‘les blues’ as many are claiming or to ensure that only players indoctrinated with French history and culture play for the national team. The aim is to prevent investing in players with dual nationality who latter opt to play for their other country. These players all tend to have African countries as their other nationality.

From the squad that won the World Cup – Zidane, Desailly, Vieira, Thuram and Karembeu among others all had either heritage from another nation or dual nationality. So why on earth would some in French football want to limit this pool of talent to just 30%? Could they really be that inherently racist that they believe the French national side needs to be predominately white in order to uphold its values, whatever they may be? The truth of it is race has actually very little to do with it. This is not to say race is not an issue here, as evidently it is, but it is not to keep the French team predominately white. Rather it was a misguided attempt to ensure players developed by the French youth system stay on to represent France.

The perceived need to ensure that players continue to play for France is due to a change in the rules of international eligibility by FIFA. In 2003 they agreed to Algeria’s appeal that a player capped for a country at youth level should be able to represent another at senior level. Then in 2009 they eliminated any age limit on when this change is made, just so long as a full senior debut had not been made. This has drastically changed the picture of the French youth system. Under the new ruling all the players mentioned above would have been eligible to play for their respective other nations despite even after having appeared for various French youth teams. White French players will have no other country they could then turn around and represent.

The French 'La Masia'

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We are currently seeing the change in the rules have a real affect for French and African football. The Algerian side that made its first appearance at a World Cup for 24 years had a starting line up containing four players who had turned out for French youth teams with a further four on the bench. Four members of the French starting line up that won the 2001 under-17’s World Cup now represent African nations at senior level. Last season’s Ligue 1 top goal scorer and Clairefontaine graduate Moussa Sow now represents Senegal. In addition to this English Football League’s player of the year Adel Taarabt now plays for Morocco having turned out for the French under 19’s side. Although none of these players would be guaranteed to be involved in the current French national side, the fact that so many are making themselves unavailable decreases the pool of talent the national team can draw from.

Clairefontaine

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Although the French Football Federation (FFF) have launched an investigation into this possible institutional racism and any idea of a race quota will be rightly dismissed. It will not get to the heart of the problem that many in French football feel that it isn’t right that after all the money France spends on developing players, they go on to ply their trade for other international sides. Therefore this will not be the last instance of France trying to ensure that those who are produced at Clairefontaine and other youth facilities up and down the country go on to represent France.

As already noted it is predominately African nations that have started to benefit from the change in the rules. Therefore it is precisely them that are so vulnerable from any attack on the development of African players in France. The lack of football training facilities across Africa, certainly when compared to somewhere like Clairefontaine, means the majority of African players will undertake their football education in Europe. This move for a quota system, which will rightly be rejected by the FFF, reflects a train of thought amongst French football that will not be so easily averted. It is one that does not want to see French training facilities used by players who are going to end up plying their trade in the English Premier League and representing African nations.

Even though there is widespread rage across France at this proposed quota, it fits into a wider picture of French football not wanting to be a mere platform for African players to enter the money of English football. It is a grievance that carries some weight as it is French clubs such as St Etienne and Marseille who develop young African players only to see their investment lost as they move on as they enter the prime of their career. Unless French clubs or the French national team begin to see more of a return on their investment in African players there will be further attempts at knocking away this crucial development stage for Africans footballers in France. Gaining football development in France is crucial for African players. But if the French national team along with French clubs continue to miss out on the talent being produced then it will become an unsustainable model. Indeed with English clubs signing up players from France at a younger age, French clubs are even missing out on cashing in on the stars they develop. The problem of African players abandoning French football will not be eliminated as easily as this quota system.

– Joseph Walsh

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