Review of Laurent Dubois, Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, University of California Press, 2010.
Here we go. Again. Another sah-curr book. Another American spellbound by the beautiful game – but seemingly not intrigued enough to nail a few of its basics.
To be fair, Laurent Dubois manages to spell Zinedine Zidane’s name correctly, unlike Franklin Foer. Where Joe McGinniss in The Miracle of Castel di Sangro has a massive moral meltdown upon discovering that football teams sometimes cheat, knowingly, and aren’t too bothered by their actions, Dubois takes such things in his stride. While Jim Rome’s sah-curr obsession is entirely hateful, Dubois seems to like the game. But damnit, couldn’t he get a few simple terminological issues right? Games of football are decided by goals not points; overtime is not the appropriate term for “injury time” (nor should it be confused with “extra time”); Arsene Wenger doesn’t coach Arsenal; referees don’t confer with linemen; the crossbar is not the “upper post”; they’re draws not ties!
Picky? Maybe. But Dubois’ lack of familiarity with the superficial casts some doubt on his explorations of the deep. The argument that he is translating the terms for Americans will just not do – as the title of my forthcoming book, “Hitting Sixes in Baseball” demonstrates. Perhaps the errors are explicable entirely by the fact that the book’s copyediting and proofing were supervised by a university press in California. I hope so; because the story Soccer Empire tells is a beauty.
Unlike many football books this one has a carefully constructed, novelistic sense of narrative. The opening scene tracing construction worker, Smaïl Zidane’s migration from Algeria to Saint-Denis is nicely balanced with the final act of the book, his son’s head butt (his coup de boule), administered to the baiting Italian, Marco Materazzi, in the 2006 World Cup final.
Soccer Empire takes us on a journey through colonial France. The edges of the empire are places to which football is exported, where the game is enthusiastically adopted by the locals. As is the way of colonialism, the postcolonial response kicks in eventually. Football, once a means of pacification, turns around and bites, and feeds, and bites again, the Metropole. In the French Caribbean, large swathes of Africa, New Caledonia and the French satellite suburbs, the banlieues that house the barely welcomed migrants, football emerges as a game embodying both loyalty and resistance to the French Empire.
The historical and political setting thus complete, Dubois fleshes out his central characters, two giants of the modern French game, Lilian Thuram and Zidane. Thuram is the hero: a football intellectual and diplomat (and half-decent centre back). Born in Guadeloupe, he is committed to his birthplace but also to the values of the French Republic. He is campaigner against racism for whom dignity is paramount, no matter what the provocation.
Thuram’s strength of character and intellect is revealed when asked why he doesn’t sing ‘The Marseillaise’ when representing France (something he always in fact did). Rather than defend himself he immediately leaps to the defence of others. He responds by saying it is more important to feel loyalty than to show it.
Zidane is the book’s antihero: a taciturn and enigmatic child of migration, devastating on the field, quiet and distant off it. He is the explosive foil to Thuram’s calm demeanour. An object of Dubois’ admiration he nonetheless cannot be fathomed.
The central drama surrounds the French team’s success in winning the World Cup in 1998. Thuram, Zidane, the Ghanaian Marcel Desailly, the Kanak Christian Karembeu and a number of other players-of-Empire come together to create one of the world’s great teams.
Their victory is seen by many as a moment in which the racism of the past might well have been overcome by a team that truly represented the multicultural composition of French society. For a while even the banlieues obtained brief inclusion in the cultural geography France.
The victory certainly quieted the book’s villain Jean-Marie Le Pen and his far-right Front National party. Dubois cites many examples of people, in the glow of celebration, letting their racist guards down. For “a few days it felt as if France was a unified, joyful, hopeful nation – a nation capable of anything, even overcoming the racism rooted in its colonial past.” Yet this victory is an anti-climax. The senses of tolerance and openness that sprang up overnight soon fade. Dubois traces the decay of this solidarity.
The true climax of the book happens eight-years later in a French team composed mostly of black players – a point Le Pen and others emphasise. The team’s defeat in the final is almost inevitable. Paris does not prepare for a night of Joy as in 1998, but for the violence of a vaguely intimated retribution.
The delightful twist is that this act of retribution happens on the field with Zidane’s coup de boule. While possibly costing France victory, it was a profoundly significant gesture that “shattered the image of a happy ending so many had come to the game with, proposing something bewildering, provocative, and unsettling in its place.”
Dubois concludes with an air of unflappable optimism. Zidane’s act was to sacrifice his own happy ending with an act of inexplicable violence in the face of vile insult. For Dubois this was a creative gesture, one able to instigate thinking and acting in ways that help to solve France’s interminable problems by “purging insult and provocation” from daily life.
I’m not convinced – though I’d like to be.