It was April 1999, and I was in a Paris hotel room, idly watching television, amazed to see a TV chef scooping handfuls of "un peu de sel" to add to the soup. Then came an advertisement, from the station itself: "Nine months after World Cup 98... France celebrates the children of victory..." The premise was that the joy of the nation's triumph the previous summer had now emerged from the womb; the images were a series of close-ups of the arms and legs and bellies of happily gurgling newborn babies, of every conceivable human coloring, and the baby's names flashed on the screen beside them -- Didier, Zinedine, Lilian, Marcel, Fabien, Laurent, etc, the names of that great multiracial French team, with each baby's skin-color not necessarily matching that of his famous footballing namesake.
Just to avoid appearing completely soft and sentimental, the ad ended with an hysterically crying baby, and the punchline baby-name displayed: "Ronaldo" -- the young Brazilian striker who had suffered some sort of seizure, perhaps a panic attack, on the eve of his team's final against France, and was thus branded a crybaby.
That wasn't very nice about Ronaldo, but the advertisement otherwise charmingly summed up how good France was feeling about its multi-colored team and its multi-colored self at that time. Against the objections of the racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had quibbled about how French the team was, the French Republic affirmed that national identity was a matter of team play, not of ethnic origins.
Fast-forward more than seven years, and the French team, seemingly in decline, had surprisingly made its way to the World Cup final in Germany 2006, against Italy. After a 1-1 draw over 90 minutes, the game went into a half-hour of extra time. Zinedine Zidane -- at 34 still then arguably the world's best player, already honored as the man of the tournament, the scorer of France's only goal in this match, and, with his Algerian parents, the embodiment of the 'new France' narrative -- had a header saved by the magnificent Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. A short time later, after his shirt was pulled by defender Marco Materazzi, Zidane walked away, then, hearing something from his opponent, stalked back and head-butted Materazzi in the chest. The referee didn't see it, but after getting advice from the sideline fourth official (itself a matter of questionable legality, if, as most people believed, that official was relying on video evidence) he red-carded Zidane. France, without their captain and talisman, survived the final 10 minutes but lost the penalty shootout.
Much of the world cried "Racism!" The excellent American political sportswriter Dave Zirin was among them. There was no evidence for this, apart from a lip-reader who alleged she he could see the words "son of a terrorist whore" being mouthed by Materazzi. Zidane, quiet-spoken but temperamental -- this was the 14th red-card of his career, his second in World Cup final tournaments -- never alleged that Materazzi made a racist remark. (Four years on, the nearest we've come to a plausible dialogue, probably in Italian, was something like, "ZZ: If you want my shirt that bad, you can have it after the game. MM: I'd rather have your whore of a sister.") Materazzi won damages from at least one of the English newspapers that accused him of racism.
The lack of evidence didn't stop the agonised speculating about what it all meant. Time magazine headlined that "the head-butt furor" was "a window on Europe's identity crisis".
In fact, at least to my mind, the reaction to the 2006 World Cup final was really just another version of the reaction to the 1998 World Cup final. Soccer is not, I think, a special or significant site of racism -- just a usually mild, occasionally noisy reflection of the racism that pervades other areas of our societies (though certainly it is plausible to claim that there is something of a glass ceiling for black managers).
Soccer is, however, a very special and significant site of "anti-racist" posturing, which is what unites that cute TV ad and the handwringing over Zidane. That is not to minimise the welcome pro-immigrant statements voiced by some French footballers, nor the grassroots efforts at 'inclusion' all over the world, nor the idiocy of the racist abuse that gets dished out by some fans, and (much more rarely) by some players and managers. This occasionally rises to the point where it obviously affects what happens on the field (see below). But top athletes take a lot of abuse over their careers, even transcendent players like Zidane, and it's probably safe to assume that most of it is color-blind.
On the other hand, the governing authorities in soccer love to roll out low-cost, high-visibility campaigns against racism. This serves not only to color them in a benign light -- not an easy task when it comes to sports bureaucrats -- but also aids a larger conservative social purpose. It helps to sustain a definition of racism that sees it as being a matter of personal attitudes, of shaking hands with your black opponent, of not racially abusing black footballers. By this measure, a society where little or none of this happens doesn't have a racism problem, however immersed in poverty and oppression its black and immigrant populations may be.
This is not the place for opening the political can of worms labeled 'multiculturalism'. But, frankly, the worms are out already, all over Europe, not least in France, where the celebrations of 1998 gave way to the riots of 2005 and the sort of 'republicanism' that bans Muslim girls from wearing head-scarves to school. One turning point was a 2001 'friendly' game (that is, outside of any official competition) between France and Algeria in Paris. The match had to be stopped after Algerian fans invaded the field -- some of them had also abused Zidane, calling him a traitor because he played for France rather than his parents' home country. That evening, as much as any other moment, took the shine off France's pride in its team's diversity. The French establishment's blatant effort to 'nationalize' the complex reality of imperialism, immigration and football foundered, and never fully recovered.
The French team remains very much 'black, blanc, beur' (black, white, Arab). The chances of them renewing their rivalry with the 'bianco, bianco, bianco' Italians in this year's final are widely regarded as slim, however, because neither country has been in good form over the last four years. They were both poor in the European Championship of 2008 -- France especially -- and were not especially impressive in qualifying for the World Cup. France, in particular, won no friends internationally for the way they qualified: in extra time of a playoff with Ireland, Thierry Henry set up the winning goal after virtually catching the ball with his left hand. The infraction was somehow missed by match officials, prompting the widespread view that the sport's governing body, FIFA, favors big countries progressing to the final tournament. (FIFA had also made a late change to the rules that governed the draw for the European playoffs, to ensure favorable seeding for the big teams.)
If the authorities really did conspire to get France through, FIFA was doing no one any favors. France will be unloved in South Africa, even by their own fans, who have been waiting for years to get rid of the team's idiotic manager, Raymond Domenech -- he was, reportedly, responsible for refusing the Irish request for a replay of that controversial game. (This week Domenech's post-tournament replacement was announced: Laurent Blanc, a '98er, white in name and nature.) That replay idea, however illogical and dangerous as a precedent, was popular even among French fans, embarrassed at the manner of their qualification.
Maybe their magnanimity illustrates a litle missing passion among some of the French support. Before '98, in fact, most French people (white people especially) would have been regarded as somewhat indifferent to soccer, with the French elite prouder of its rugby achievements and its cycling tradition than its football team. This is, by the way, not uncommon: in several countries, even where the game is very popular, soccer is the sporting equivalent of a port city, viewed by national and class elites as suspiciously cosmopolitan, proletarian, mestizo.
There is no shortage of commitment, however, in Italy's relationship with soccer: Berlusconi himself owns a football club. It is inconceivable that many Italian fans would shame-facedly suggest a replay after a controversial victory, the way the gentle French did.
Italy's passion for 'calcio' -- no transliterated 'football' in the Italian language -- is utterly unquestionable. But it's not just passion. In a country that is stereotyped for romanticism, soccer is approached with technocratic thoroughness, the flair players less valued than the rigorous defensive systems that yield hard-earned victories. The sophistication of the Italian discourse about football is bracing to anglophone 'experts': it's no accident that both the England national team and the English league and cup champion, Chelsea, plus English nouveau riche club Manchester City, owned by an Abu Dhabi consortium, have hired Italian managers. (Ireland too.) Italy are rarely the tournament favorites at the start of the World Cup, but they have won it more often than any country except Brazil.
The whiteness of the Italian team is partly a result of the profound oppression and segregation of immigrants in Italy, and also partly a result of the continuing capacity of 'white Italy' to develop great footballers in the Italian way. The Italian league, which has been one of the world's best, and best-paying, for most of the last century, has had countless black players from all over the world -- this season's champions, Inter Milan, have a 'mixed-race' side without a single Italian among the first-choice 11. Very few of the black players in Italy over the years were Italian citizens: only two light-skinned 'mixed-race' Italians have ever played for the national team.
Over the last season or two, however, Italy has been forced to confront the question of race in its national game, because of the emergence of striker Mario Balotelli. Born in Sicily of Ghanaian parents, he was effectively adopted by a north-Italian family at age 2 and thinks of himself as Italian; he never had any question of which national team he would play for if he got the chance: the azzurri of Italy, not the Black Stars of Ghana.
Now age 19, Balotelli remains a player of great potential rather than a great player, but his notoriety has to do with this black-Italianness, virtually unprecedented in the country's public life, and with the fact that he has been subjected to special abuse, even by his own team's fans, over the last couple of seasons, much of the abuse laced with racist language. Many observers, including trustworthy players like the black Dutchman Clarence Seedorf and Italian leftist Cristiano Lucarelli, insist Balotelli has not been singled out because of his potential to be a breakthrough black-Italian international, but because of his arrogance and lack of team-work on the field; nonetheless it is hard to imagine that a white Italian with a similar playing style would be subject to such opprobrium. You can almost hear the rationalization: "It's not that I'm racist -- I just hate Balotelli."
The abuse from the stands, combined with the frequent hostility of his Inter Milan club manager, Jose Mourinho, who constantly criticises Balotelli's "immaturity", have presumably contributed to his slow progress this season, where he has mostly been a substitute rather than a starter and has scored a modest 10 goals -- though he has set up eight more and is a threat with his powerful shot from free-kicks. Two years ago he was a good bet to be in Italy's 2010 team; but this month he is not even in Marcello Lippi's preliminary squad, in which the best players are too old and the strikers simply don't look good enough.
We can hope he will have a part to play in this weekend's European Champions League final, when Inter play Bayern Munich, but sadly Balotelli won't be playing in South Africa, and perhaps he will have to leave Italy to make progress in his club career, hoping to gain national recognition from there.
But, again, it would be rash to jump to pop-sociological conclusions about all this. Only one thing can be said for certain: in the unlikely event that this year's final is a repeat of the last one, pitting Italy against France, it will see a profoundly racist society being represented by an all-white team versus a profoundly racist society being represented by a largely black team.
That may help decide where fans' sympathies will lie, especially in South Africa. But it won't tell us anything that we don't already know about the reality of the world outside the stadium.