Data and social-cultural stories about the French Team and my Dad.
NB: This story was originally posted on Medium on Jul, 18 2018.
These past days, I have been extremely annoyed by all the comments I read on the Internet claiming that “Africa has won the World Cup” last Sunday when Hugo Lloris was lifting the golden trophy in Moscow.
The authors of the articles or social media posts are for the vast majority not French but have decided to flood the Internet with their ideas and beliefs. Hence, I have decided to write this opinion post as a gentle answer with some simple facts (and a bit of my personal story).
The French Soccer Team lifting the Jules Rimet Cup twenty years after their older peers.
If you are outside of France or do pay attention to international coverage, you will see a number of articles, comments or tweets aiming at, in my opinion, discrediting France’s win by throwing statistics about the French roster’s parents’ origin or religion.
It is literally coming from everywhere including from the people you think should be cautious or, at least, aware of the power of words. Trevor Noah, the famous South African comedian, has allowed himself to congratulate ‘Africa’ for the World Cup in The Daily Show, an American satirical news program he hosts.
It gets even worse when the players from the team, themselves, have to respond to those ridiculous claims, such as Benjamin Mendy’s reply below to one of the most followed English soccer Twitter account (@Sporf).
To get back to facts, only two players from the French squad are born outside of France : Samuel Umtiti, born in Cameroon before moving to Lyon when he was 2, and Steve Mandanda, born in Zaire shortly before his family fled to Europe. As a comparison, Croatia’s team has four foreign-born players including three of their top five players (Ivan Rakitić, Dejan Lovren, Mateo Kovačić and Vedran Ćorluka)
Unfortunately, in an era where buzz spreads faster than facts, people are sharing what I think is a complete misinterpretation of France’s situation regarding religion or immigration. One of the most viral (and abnoxious) tweet was written by Khaled Beydoun.
Far from claiming that France does not have its own issues, I do not think there is any need for an American to transpose its own country’s issues to another. I would like to believe that the world can actually accept that the ‘French’ team won thanks to the excellence of its sports infrastructure, not because it has been getting extra help. The situation has really nothing in common with the 2015 Qatar’s handball team where foreign-born players who held Qatari citizenship made up more than two thirds of the country’s 16-man squad.
If you take a step back, first, you realize that nobody in France is talking about the skin color, religion or origin of the players; then, you quickly understand that none of the commentators has come with data or a thorough socioeconomic study to try to understand why the second generation of African immigrants is over-represented in the French soccer team (vs. teams like Germany or England which have experienced a similar level of immigration).
A Better Question
So why doesn’t the French team look like bunch of white French men wearing a béret and running with a baguette all over the pitch ?
My personal opinion and story convinces me that it has more to deal with the socioeconomic situation of France and particularly of the Greater Paris Area (or banlieues, notghettos like my Uber driver dared to tell me two days ago in San Francisco). The area is often referred as the global football’s best talent pool. Indeed, half the French players who played during the World Cup final against Croatia came from the banlieues of Paris or Lyon. Kylian Mbappé and the entire starting midfield of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Blaise Matuidi are Parisians.
This phenomenon is not new : nearly a decade ago, Arsène Wenger (manager of Arsenal from 1996 to 2018) already ranked the Paris region as the second-best talent pool in soccer after Sao Paulo in Brazil. But, even if you take this into account, sons of African immigrants are still over-represented in the French roster compared to the Paris or Lyon Area population. Why ? That’s an interesting question and one we could focus on. I see few reasons.
Competition in a Centralized Country
Macroeconomics effects and soccer.
First, you need to know that France is extremely centralized around Paris. This phenomenon started early under Louis XIV’s absolute monarchy (Ancient Regime) who tried to gather all the political forces in Paris to control them. Since then, the centralization of France has only increased and facts you can find about it are very telling :
Paris Region accounts for 25% of France’s Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) while having only about 15% of France’s population
The entire political and judicial system is in Paris along with all of the best universities and headquarters of its biggest companies
As a comparison, Germany, which is a much younger country than France, has a more balanced distribution of its population and GDP. The chart below illustrates perfectly France heavy reliance on the Paris Area whereas Germany has distributed its economic power throughout its sixteen Bundesländer.
Why this matters ? This is crucial because it means, that, not only, all the influx of both skilled and non-skilled immigrants is historically directed to the Paris Area, but also, that you are creating a bigger pool of young players competing in the same area. This increased competition raises the overall quality; it should then come without any surprise that you will see a higher proportion of “African-looking” players competing for France and actually bringing the trophy home (sorry England) .
A decade ago, my two younger brothers and myself had the chance to compete in what is surely one of the most competitive sports environment you can find. The soccer level in the Paris Area is incredibly good. Everybody was playing it in the streets and at school. During my time, there were locally almost 3 to 4 times more league levels than the rest of France. Every Sunday, we were traveling all across the area to face the best teams.
But you could argue that England is also very centralized so why do not we see this over-representation of sons of immigrants in their roster ?
Sport as a Vector of Development
My Dad vs Soccer scouts.
A quick look at Great Britain results during the last Olympic Games shows you how sportplays a prominent role in the English life. Astonishing is the only world that can describe the performance they put on with 27 gold medals (more than China’s 26) and 67 medals in total (vs. 70 for China). Great Britain’s culture and consideration of sport as a vector of development for young kids have allowed them to become a very important sports powerhouse ranking itself second at the last Olympic Games (in front of China or Russia).
Top 5 Gold Medals winners during the 2016 Rio’s Olympic Games (by count; left to right) — source : Wikipedia
For your culture, a number of modern sports were codified in England during the nineteen century, among them cricket, football, squash, tennis, or badminton.
At the opposite, the intuition I get through the discussion I have with my French peers and my personal story, is that sport is less predominant in the French culture. Educated families and the French middle-class tend to devaluate sports hence diverting their kids from pursing a career in that field.
“Soccer was never an option for my brothers and I”
Culturally and factually, the weight given to sports in the French educational system is almost inexistent. We are far from the US model where you can actually access to college by excelling in sports. President Macron has mentioned the problem and a recent government study has pointed out such devaluation.
Typically, despite my father’s love for the game, soccer was never an option for my brothers and I. When Ligue 1 or 2 teams’ scouts came to knock at our doors or asked us to undergo tests, my parents would just answer with a “No”. My parents were literally seeing a career in sports as a risk or something obstructing their kids from being prepared to higher education.
Consequently, the more I was growing up, the less diverse was my soccer team. As time went by, the team was slowly keeping a higher proportion of kids coming from lower social layers mainly formed by sons of African immigrants in the Paris Area. Their parents, who came to rebuild France after the World War II, were often uneducated and unfortunately rarely provided any educational support to their children.
More than a question of race or religion, there are significant cultural and economic levers making the French team looks like it does today. A pure social selection happens leveling down the social background of soccer teams as kids grow up. Today, this over-representation is happening in the Paris Area and impacting directly the French squad look.
Excellence of the French system
3 World Cup Finals in 5 editions
Eventually, the French system deserves a lot of credit. It is a pure fact that all the French squad talents have been refined in France with the exception of Lucas Hernandez and Antoine Griezmann.
More than that, France has also been feeding several African teams including Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia or Portugal. According to Sports sociologist Darko Dukic study, the past five World Cups have featured 60 Paris-born participants, more than any other city of the world (Buenos Aires comes #2 with 50 of them).
This chart shows you where each member of the French winning squad has played during its Junior and Professional years. Beige represents French teams pointing out the excellence of the soccer academia.
Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian legend himself, recently said about the state of French soccer :
“5 finals in the last 20 years between the World Cup and European Championship: that’s something you don’t achieve by chance”
Say no more.
My (Humble) Take
The issue has not much to do with Africa, more about socioeconomic situation in France locally. Immigration has obviously brought sons of African immigrants to France but their emergence to the highest level has nothing to do with Africa. Paris Area ecosystem and the socioeconomic situation (un-?)fortunately got them there.
Now if you want to talk about xenophobia, racism or equality of opportunity, this is a whole other topic. Those issues are extremely interesting but my personal opinion is that they have nothing to do with soccer and should be treated somewhere else. There is no need for that.
I have finally to admit that Obama has been the only person bringing up the subject with wise words. Class is not for everybody.
Thank you for reading. It goes without saying that you should feel free to comment. Special thanks to my friends Antoine and Nicolas whose words and ideas are always excellent catalysts for my personal reflection. And special thoughts to my old soccer teammates who, despite making fun of me for having good grades, are like family to me 😄.
[UPDATE] French Ambassador in the US, Gerard Araud, has decided to reply to Trevor Noah with the following letter :