While the World Cup win of France’s multi-cultural team has triggered a mood of positivity and unity on the streets of Paris, the story is very different in the suburbs where many of the stars grew up. Mamadou Diouf, who coached French superstar Paul Pogba for close to 11 years, isn’t sure if the incredible journey of this diverse team will ease racial tensions in a divided country hit by terrorism and the emergence of far-right in last elections.
“Popular jubilation masks a lot of reality, but life goes on,” Diouf told The Indian Express on Monday, hours after the World Champions were paraded through Paris in an open-top bus for a street party that had been triggered after France had dazzled the world with a 4-2 win over Croatia in the World Cup final.
For the world, France’s success was credited to the country’s very inclusive immigration policy, what with 16 of 23 players in the French squad belonging to the family of immigrants from Paris’s deprived neighbourhoods.
Two of them — Pogba, who is of Guinean origin, and Kylian Mbappe, born to an Algerian mother and Cameroonian father — even scored goals in the final. The origins of other players can also be traced to countries such as Senegal, Morocco, Mauritania and Mali.
However, those, like Diouf, who live in the suburbs feel otherwise. “France is (the) world champion and loves all the players, but it is these same people who jubilate who will vote National Front,” Diouf said, referring to France’s far right, which advocates strict policies to reduce immigration, especially from African countries.
Diouf moved to Paris from Senegal more than four decades ago. He played for some of the top French clubs, including Cannes where he played along side Zinedine Zidane in the 1991 season. Diouf was with Paris FC, a lower division club, when he suffered an injury that would prematurely end his career. “My former coach asked me to pass my coaching diplomas because I had a good pedagogy. Since then, I became a trainer at the French (football) federation,” he says.
Diouf became the coach of US Roissy, a small club in eastern Parisian suburb of Roissy-en-Brie. Pogba was four when he joined the club, Diouf claimed, and played there till he was 15. Diouf was one of his early coaches before he became the technical director of the club.
For a little more than 20 years, Diouf has been training coaches in the Ile-de-France region. But he holds a deep grudge. “In the French football championship, there are more blacks (players), but no black coach, why?”
It’s a grouse that several coaches and players from the region hold. The contrast between the number of black players and coaches in the French league is stark. According to the book ‘Sciences Sociales Soccer Club’, there were close to 150 players with immigrant backgrounds in the country’s top division in the 2013-14 season. That number has increased substantially since then but in the upcoming season, only two out of the 40 clubs in the top two divisions have appointed a black manager — Patrick Vieira with Nice and Guingamp’s Antoine Kombouare.
Even at the World Cup, there was just one black coach — Senegal’s Aliou Cissé. “It must be said, African countries have the white coach complex,” Diouf said.
He narrated his meeting with the former president of France’s top division club Montpellier Louis Nicollin, who passed away last year, at his residence: “I was the only black coach (present). He immediately appreciated me and said ‘why are there only white heads in the African selections.You have the same diplomas or more, the same skills but I pity you because we do not want you in France and we do not want you in Africa. It’s tough to understand why.”
Diouf added ‘racism still exists because some contemptuous people do not know the history of France.’ “If we do not know the story of the birth of the suburbs, we cannot understand the suffering of the people who live there,” Diouf says, referring to the decades after the second World War when the French government recruited immigrants, mostly from Africa, to rebuild the country at a time when the country was facing severe labour shortage.
Most of them ended up settling in the suburbs around Paris, which have over the years gained notoriety for high crime and unemployment rates and, of late, viewed as a breeding ground for terrorism. “The suburbs had a negative connotation because most people who lived there were poor,” Diouf says. “But with urbanization, the phenomenon is reversed because some suburbs like Chessy, next to Disneyland, and Bussy-Saint-Georges, where Pogba has his home, are more up to some arrondissements (administrative districts) in Paris.”
On Monday, as thousands waved French flags and sang the national anthem, former players expressed optimism that the country will not let go the unity forged by ‘Black, Blanc, Beur,’ — a reference to the white, black and North African players who scripted the memorable triumph in 1998.
Diouf, too, believes this moment of ‘intense intensity’ can reunite the country. But years of neglect has made him wary. “I have been professional but the disease (racism) has taken me off the field. I train coaches every year but as I am an immigrant, some big clubs will prefer a less competent white than me,” he says. “Long live diversity!”