Football in the Age of Late Capitalism: Field Notes From the 2016 Euro

Behind a veneer of youthful glamour, the Euro all but groaned under the weight of excess global capital, merciless media scrutiny, hyperprofessionalization, domestic French anxieties, and geopolitics.

The Joy of Hundreds of Thousands of Irish and Welsh

That UEFA increasingly runs the Euro as its own private, entrepreneurial profit center hasn’t stopped national governments from continuing to pin great political hopes on it. Visitors to the interesting exhibit on “Le football, une affaire d’État” [Football, an affair of state] put on by the French National Archives last summer at its Pierrefitte site -- walking distance from the Stade de France -- could revisit the long history of the sport’s political instrumentalization.

To experience hundreds of thousands of Irish and Welsh supporters pacifically celebrating, drinking, and fraternizing is, more than anything else, what makes being in a host country during a Euro so much fun.
This history’s most enduring image surely remains that of then-president Jacques Chirac (always discreet about his true sports passion, sumo) at the 1998 World Cup final sporting a national team jersey together with a broad smile, a performance calibrated to help resuscitate his ailing political fortunes. For François Hollande’s embattled Socialist government, however, the Euro fell at a particularly treacherous political moment. Having spent the better part of the Spring facing down bitter strikes and street demonstrations protesting a far-reaching labor law reform, and with unions threatening to disrupt the Euro, it was unclear whether Hollande would be in a position to glean any political capital from the tournament.

Still mourning the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015, the French too had good reason to be anxious as the Euro approached. With French intelligence services warning of the risks of another attack during the tournament (recall that the Stade de France was targeted by suicide bombers last year during a friendly opposing France and Germany), police were placed on high alert. Mixing opportunism with bad faith, right-wing politicians tripped over themselves to cast doubt on Hollande’s ability to keep France safe during the Euro. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, ready as ever to pour fuel over the flames of fear to forward his own efforts to win the presidency again in 2017, called for shutting the fan zones altogether.

Even the narrowest focus on football could bring no escape from broader French worries. The national team has come to function as a screen upon which French society projects its anxieties. If the 1998 World Cup-winning team was celebrated as a happy symbol of a France at peace with its multicultural “Black-Blanc-Beur” identity, the squad has since become exhibit A in an increasingly hysterical public conversation on race and immigration. When the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen called the “Frenchness” of players of North and West African origin into question t20 years ago, his was mercifully a lonely voice. Beginning in the '00s, however, a number of public figures seeking to make political hay of a mounting crisis of confidence in the French model helped normalize Le Pen’s racialized and racist vocabulary.

Alain Finkielkraut, whose association with the '70s-era “New Philosophers” movement has granted him the legitimacy and media access with which to proffer increasingly extreme views, criticized the team in 2005 in noxious terms: “today, the national team is black-black-black, which makes all of Europe snicker.” Pundits transformed the French players’ strike during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (protesting the expulsion of forward Nicolas Anelka for having insulted the coach) from the ridiculous soap opera it was into a morality play about the alleged failings of France’s banlieues, the disadvantaged suburbs where, it was presumed, French players grow up. Such concerns have apparently insinuated themselves into the world of professional football itself. In 2011, a conversation involving then-national team coach (and veteran of the 1998 team) Laurent Blanc and other high-ranking federation officials was leaked in which they spoke of the need for “racial quotas” on the national team.

This past season offered up the latest polemic-ready telenovela, when France’s best striker, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, was indicted as an accessory in the blackmail of his own teammate, Matthieu Valbuena, over a sex tape. One of the far-right’s rising stars, Jean-Marie’s own niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, seized the occasion in predictably xenophobic fashion, accusing Benzema of preferring “his” country (meaning Algeria, where his parents were born) and being “a repeat anti-patriotic offender”. No small irony, then, that in December the so-called Football Leaks investigation into offshore tax evasion piloted by a consortium of European news organizations revealed that Benzema was one of the only top players who chose to pay taxes in high-marginal-rate France; in contrast, Jean-Marie Le Pen, his daughter and current FN chief Marine, and members of their circle figure in the Panama Papers and have repeatedly been investigated for (and convicted of) tax evasion.

While the FN and its fellow-travelers are quick to view French players’ misadventures through the lens of race and cultural difference, such incidents are surely better understood in the context of the professional footballer’s peculiar adolescence. Plucked from their families as children, boarded and educated within French clubs’ training academies, socialized in homosocial worlds stamped with intensely heteronormative and competitive values, showered with wealth, subjected to intense media scrutiny, and burdened with weighty professional and public expectations, it isn’t all that surprising that some of these young men make poor decisions. The sorcerers’ apprentices of hate who have made players into overdetermined symbols of essential cultural identities have obscured their true nature as highly commodified laborers (albeit well-remunerated ones), whose emotional maturity and even personal happiness have been sacrificed on the altars of performance and profit (on this, the bestselling memoir of life in the English Premiership, The Secret Footballer, is illuminating). That the French team’s current (white) poster boy Antoine Griezmann escaped opprobrium for a 2012 escapade (sneaking away from Le Havre in a taxi with several teammates on France’s under-21 team to party at a Paris nightclub on the eve of a key match, which earned him a 12-month suspension) throws the racialized double standard to which French players are held into sharp relief.

Benzema’s suspension for his alleged role in the sex tape affair, the presumed toll the attendant scandal took on lockerroom morale, and a raft of injuries to other internationals ensured that, despite a surprise run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup two years before, French hopes were not running high on the eve of the Euro. Pessimists looking for a silver lining in this storm front of controversy and medical misfortune could find solace in the notion that an exciting, internationally-competitive team could have been composed (on paper, at least) from French players left off the squad because of judicial tribulations, injury, or coach’s prerogative -- a testament to the continued health of France’s vaunted youth training system (cognoscenti are invited to consider this starting lineup of world-class absentees: Ruffier / Mathieu-Sakho-Varane-Debuchy / Zouma-Diarra / Ntep-Fekir-Valbuena / Benzema).

* * *

As I made my way with a friend to the Stade de France for the opening match between France and Romania, we had to traverse successive cordons of heavily armed police patting-down every ticket-holder, sobering proof that the authorities had taken the security threat very seriously indeed. Once the match was underway, France’s tentative play and rickety defense (typically a strength, but Les Bleus’s coach had improvised a back-four line at the last minute after injuries felled several key defensive players), did little to dispel concern about their prospects in the tournament. French midfielder Dimitri Payet’s heart-stopping long-range shot into the upper left corner of the Romanian goal in the final minute of regulation, which sent French supporters home happy, surprised, and spent, would prove to be the first of several last-minute French miracles in the first round.

The opening match’s biggest surprise was not what unfolded on the pitch, however, but rather in the stands. While Les Bleus have been part of the international top flight more or less continuously since the '80s, its supporters have remained notoriously passive -- in contrast, say, to Scotland’s mighty “Tartan Army” or Germany’s boisterous support. I can recall a friendly between France and the Netherlands in the mid-'90s at the Parc des Princes in Paris (a 2-1 French victory) when the lusty singing of several thousand Oranje fans utterly drowned out 30,000 French supporters. Thanks to the patient efforts of a French supporters association which has worked to translate the kind of fervent support the hexagon’s most popular clubs enjoy to the national team, such a culture has finally taken root in France. In the kop, the section of the stadium behind the goal where we watched the match, supporters stood, sang, and danced through the entire match.

Less than 24 hours later, violent clashes between Russian and England supporters in the streets of Marseille summoned football’s worst demons. Russians and English fought again in Lille several days later. Even the most anti-authoritarian observers had to feel a certain sympathy for the French police, worn down from interminable overtime hours policing the post-Charlie Hebdo state of emergency and last spring’s labor demonstrations, and now facing off against hardened street fighters. It was also hard not to wonder whether French law enforcement, focused as it was on terrorism, had prepared for the wrong threat.

The English press covered the story as a “return” of hooliganism, as if the phenomenon had been buried long ago, the front page of the Daily Mail’s sports supplement screaming “Back in the Dark Ages”. As anyone versed in the notorious history of England’s traveling support will know, this was disingenuous. Violence has been a part of the landscape ever since large numbers of Englishmen began following the team abroad in the '80s: Sardinia in the 1990 World Cup, Marseille in the 1998 World Cup, Algarve during the 2004 Euro, and so on. Likewise, the specialists who have worriedly tracked the emergence of novel forms of hooliganism in Russia, animated in certain instances by far-right ultranationalists who circulate in Vladimir Putin’s orbit, were little surprised by the eruption of highly-trained and exceptionally violent Russians bent on creating havoc in France. Before the tournament, Russian police neglected to share much information about problem supporters with the French police services charged with monitoring hooliganism (a source within the French police told Le Monde that the Russians provided a watch list counting only 40 people; in comparison, Switzerland communicated 20 times as many names). The Kremlin even formally protested the arrest of Russian nationals involved in the fighting, arguing they had been provoked. All troubling evidence that Russia’s long geopolitical hand casts one of the shadows darkening football today. For fans planning to travel to Russia for the World Cup in 2018, have a nice trip.

Happily, the tournament returned to the festive norm that has set the Euro apart from other major international sporting events since the '70s. Postwar Europe’s geographical, political, and socioeconomic particularities -- a large number of densely populated countries disposed over a relatively small area, the growth of sizable middle classes with long vacations and disposal income, a dense network of rail and bus lines (and now, low-cost airlines), and the ease with which most Europeans can cross national frontiers have all made it possible for large numbers of supporters to cheer on their teams in person. For the citizens of many of Europe’s smaller nation-states, representing one’s country as a supporter at the Euro has become an especially important means of affirming national identity. To experience hundreds of thousands of Irish and Welsh supporters pacifically celebrating, drinking, and fraternizing is, more than anything else, what makes being in a host country during a Euro so much fun. No one who heard Northern Irish fans sing “Will Grigg’s on Fire” in France this summer will soon forget it.

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