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Carolyn Cooper | Football stirs up primitive passions

Published:Friday | July 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM

It's time for revenge. France better beat Croatia today. Two decades might seem like a long time to be carrying feelings. But it's not. At the 1998 World Cup, Jamaica ended up in Group H along with Argentina, Croatia and Japan. In our very first game, the Reggae Boyz were defeated by Croatia 3-1. Robbie Earle scored, but one goal just wasn't enough. Then Argentina beat us 5-0.

We went on to beat Japan 2-1. Theodore Whitmore scored both goals. It was too late. We were eliminated. After the tournament, FIFA ranked the 32 teams. Jamaica came in at 22. Not bad for a first-timer at the World Cup! We were ahead of Austria, South Africa, Cameroon, Tunisia, Scotland, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, South Korea, Japan and the United States - in descending order. We could hold our heads high in the big leagues.

Croatia ended up being ranked third. In front of football giants like Italy, Argentina and Germany! Like us, they were first-timers at the World Cup. Unlike us, they progressed all the way to the semi-finals. And they performed brilliantly. I suppose we could have celebrated the remarkable success of a relatively small nation like ourselves, with a population of only 4.5 million. But that would have been much too rational.




International sports competitions are certainly not about rationality. It's emotions that dominate. And there are a lot of them. Professor Dacher Keltner and graduate student Alan Cowen at the University of California, Berkeley, recently identified 27 human emotions. Far more than we used to think! These include anxiety, disgust, envy, excitement, fear, nostalgia, sadness and awe.

We feel some of these conflicting emotions when we watch our team in action. Some emotions are relatively harmless. Happiness at the victory of your team is quite therapeutic. Disgust at underperformance is entirely appropriate. Other emotions betray dangerous anxieties about nationality, race, gender and class.

My desire for revenge over Croatia springs from my powerful feelings of nationalism. And I know it's ridiculous after all these years to still have up Croatia. I'm only half-serious about wanting France to win. France is not my team, even though they did beat Croatia in the semi-finals in 1998. French culture can be very narcissistic.




Extreme nationalism and racism are evident in football culture internationally. The Soccer Politics website has a post on "French Players and Migration", which highlights the social impact of France's 1998 World Cup victory. The members of the football team "were hailed for their multiculturalism, and how they represented a new France, where the population was assimilated and uniformly French. Besides the national pride that swelled in France, there was significant focus on the ethnic makeup of the national team, which including [sic] several members who were not ethnically French".

Two decades later, can France really claim to be a multicultural state? And what does it mean to be 'ethnically French'? Is ethnicity the same as race? Is the term 'ethnically French' a coded way of signifying whiteness? And, if so, can non-ethnically French people ever become ethnically French? Put more bluntly, can black people be assimilated and become 'white'? And are whites in France allowed to mimic black identity when it suits them?

Take the case of Antoine Griezmann, France forward and Atletico Madrid player. In December 2017, he posted a provocative photograph of himself on Twitter. He sported an Afro wig and his face, legs and arms were painted black. The caption read, "80s party." Griezmann, wearing a basketball jersey, was, apparently, trying to pass for a Harlem Globetrotter! He removed the photo, which was condemned as racist. But did Griezmann's disguise reveal his envy of blackness?




On March 28, 2018, the UK Guardian carried a report with this headline: 'FIFA investigates alleged racist abuse of France players by Russia fans'. Obviously, these "France players" have not been assimilated. They are not "ethnically French". They are unmistakably black. And there are even more of them now than in 1998.

According to the report, "A Reuters photographer at pitch level for France's 3-1 win on Tuesday in St Petersburg claims to have heard monkey chants directed at French players on several occasions, including when N'Golo Kante came to the sideline for a throw-in." Kante was born in Paris in 1991. He has both Malian and French citizenship. I suppose his ethnicity is not completely French.

In response to the incident, French Sports Minister Laura Flessel-Colovic tweeted: "Racism has no place on soccer fields. We must act together at the European and international level to stop this intolerable behaviour." But what about off the soccer field?

Anti-black racism is deeply rooted in Croatia, as in France. I really don't care who wins this World Cup final. Truth be told, I've given up on revenge. My primary emotion now is envy. My nation has not been represented at the World Cup since 1998. What happened to the dream, Reggae Boyz? Is it dead? Duty's call requires a stirring response in 2022.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and