Qatar 22 is coming to an end, France and Argentina are lacing up their boots for the trophy. Some features make this edition of the football competition special. Great teams like Brazil and others exited early to most people’s stupefaction, an African Arab team, Morocco, reached the quarter finals for the first time, after beating soccer giant, Portugal.
Now race cannot be left out of the World Cup discourse. Rumours, discussions and conversations looked at the presence of Black players in certain teams, their instrumental contribution to the victory of those teams, while other teams have few to no Blacks unlike France that has a history of multicoloured, national teams. Most of their players are from Sub Saharan and North Africa, and the French colonies or Departments in the Caribbean. Zinedine Zidane, popularly known as ZiZou, although born in Southern France is of Algerian Kabyle descent. He, undoubtedly, is in the pantheon of the soccer geniuses of France. Kilyian Mbappé is currently the darling boy of French soccer, born in Paris to a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother. Marcel Desailly who was born Odenke Abbey in Accra, Ghana, was a pillar of the French team in the 90s. The French squad is, therefore, filled with immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Almost 92 per cent of the current French squad and staff are from other countries of the world.
Many see that diversity within the French national team as the result of the French assimilation colonial policy and, de facto, conclude that immigrants are accepted in France. Let us not get carried away and remain oblivious to the fact that like most western countries, immigrants find it hard to integrate in France. The whole thing is more complicated and film maker and activist Rokhaya Diallo refers to this phenomenon as the “idea of the exception”. She further explains, “you have to be exceptional to be seen. You cannot be just an average person and be considered as being part of the national fabric. You need to be the best hip-hop artiste, the best actor, the best soccer player”.
The need for labour after WWII forced France to encourage immigration into the country and that also contributes to what we are witnessing. Although Black players are our main concern here, immigrants, in general, constitute more than the backbone of the French team. For instance, despite being a European nation, 87 per cent of the 2018 soccer world cup winning team in Russia was made up of immigrants. As of 2014, there were up to six million immigrants living in France, which has a robust immigrant population of 9.1 per cent. Many of the immigrant labourers later made France their permanent home, where they raised families and developed successful careers. Their children went on to win the World Cup for France decades later.
That team, that is in majority made of non-French, Blacks from Africa or of African descent has been referred by a Burkinabè artist ZS in these terms, in the 1990s: “France is like an engine; for it to function you need oil which is a mixture”. Science teaches us that engine oil has the following composition: 78 per cent base oil, 10 per cent viscosity improvement additive and 3 per cent detergent.
Sources say that 12 players of Didier Descamps’s squad for Qatar 2022 are Black. This could really be called a Pan-African all-star team. The French team, typically known as Les Bleus ultimately got the nickname: “Black, Blanc, Beur” (Black, White and Arab).
The case of Argentina, who is playing the final of this Qatar World Cup, against France, is interesting, and presents a stark contrast. While their opponent France has several Blacks and African Arabs in their team, Argentina has never allowed any Black to wear their national jersey. The Argentinian team certainly has immigrants, and probably White Amerindians who are the product of miscegenation since White immigration was encouraged or adopted as a national policy. The Argentine political philosopher and diplomat Juan Bautista Alberdi, who said “to govern is to populate,” promoted White European immigration to the country and Argentine President Justo José de Urquiza (1854-60) supported Alberdi’s ideas and incorporated them in the country’s first constitution. Amendment 25 clearly stated: “The federal government shall foster European immigration.”
Research shows that Blacks have been exterminated in Argentina. Unlike some South American countries like Brazil (that has the largest population of Blacks outside Africa), Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Blacks have been “taken out” in Argentina. Transatlantic slave trade brought Blacks, as it happened in other South American countries. Before the 16th century slaves had arrived in relatively small numbers from the Cape Verde islands. Thereafter, the majority of Africans brought to Argentina were from ethnic groups of territories like today’s Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. Relatively few Yoruba and Ewe were taken there. That South American country embarked on a real genocide of the Blacks. They were used as cannon fodder in the war against Paraguay. So, Argentinians who are open and honest about that issue say that “we do not have Blacks in our country, we killed them all after slavery”. Diseases were introduced in their midst, Blacks were sent to live in an area where the plague existed, no health facilities or protection of any type was introduced in that area. In other words, Argentinians used Paraguay and the plague to wipe away Blacks from their country. Blacks who survived fled to countries like Bolivia, Peru, Chili, Bolivia and even Paraguay. When Blacks found refuge in those countries that accepted them and found soccer there, they encouraged other Blacks in Argentina to join them. Those Blacks were trying to escape threats like what Former Argentinian President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1868-1874) was arguing for: he equated modernity with Whiteness, wrote on Argentina’s “backwardness” and what he and others perceived as the need to become “civilized.” The nation should be associated more strongly with European, rather than African or Amerindian, heritage.
Aside from that direct extermination, the whitening of the race was practised. Light-skinned women were encouraged to have children with white men, so that progenitures would keep getting whiter and whiter. Anti-Black sentiment is so profound that Black artistic values and many other heritages are stripped of their Black origin. Tango for instance is not recognized as a dance with a Black origin. Candombe (music and dance) whose seeds originated in present-day Angola, is also viewed as non-African and the average Argentinian will tell you that there has never been Blacks in their country. History has been rewritten. Anti-black sentiment is so profound in that country that the Nazi who were seeking refuge after WWII simply relocated to Argentina.
Nonetheless, counter movements have emerged, but they face such deeply grounded hurdles. There have been Black organizations that help to rekindle interest in the African heritage of Argentina. The denial of African ancestry still lies in the dichotomy between the “official” census records of the country and the true figures on the terrain. According to the Argentine national census of 2010, the total population of Argentines was 40,117,096, of whom 149,493 (0.37%) identified as Afro-Argentine, although according to gene pools studies, the Argentine population with some degree of Sub-Saharan African descent would be around 7.5 per cent. There is, therefore, no doubt that no dark skin player is on Lionel Messi’s team. Historical distortion goes further to call the Holocaust a genocide, while the world turns a blind eye to the effacement of Blacks in Argentina.
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.