An African football icon who led Cameroon to the 2000 Olympic title in Sydney, Patrick Mboma grew up in France after leaving the country of his birth at a very young age.
In this exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the Indomitable Lions hero - who played in several countries including Italy, France, England and Japan - talks candidly about his experience of racism, his views on this cultural evil and his ideas about overcoming racial divisions.
FIFA.com: Patrick, what do you see as the cause of discrimination and racism in football?
Patrick Mboma: For me, the only obvious cause would be that people are influenced and manipulated by others. Football is a universal sport that brings together fans of every race, sex or social class. Some use the big crowds to pass on dubious messages to others that have been hypnotised by an all-consuming desire to see their team win. But when two rival sides meet, racism is generally one of the last things to divide them. Discrimination can still rear its ugly head; I’m thinking in particular of the likes of the Celtic-Rangers derby in Scotland and the issues involved there. A respect for football values usually overcomes all that, except when those that wish to influence the crowd are obsessed with a need to harm.
You arrived in France from Cameroon at the age of two, and you spent your childhood in the Paris region, surrounded by fellow immigrants. Did you ever experience racism or discrimination?
My family started off in Montfermeil then moved to Bondy. They’re towns on the outskirts of Paris that have reputations, for good reason, for being tough. But the melting pot of races there meant that the type of behaviour you would normally associate with racism was pretty much non-existent. Yes, cliques still formed, but that sort of nonsense was prevented from spreading by the good judgment of the community. Areas such as the ones I grew up in, while they’re not immune to racism, have the virtue of fighting against it. That said, with juvenile delinquency sometimes a problem there, it can be easier to spread messages of hate based on racist or xenophobic ideas.
When major figures in the game pull together, scourges like racism cannot last. A rolling football enthralls people from a young age and, symbolically, it has to keep rolling.
Did being a well-known professional footballer put you in a better position to fight racism?
I fought against racism by ignoring it. As a young boy, I didn’t understand certain racist terms being banded about by my friends. They didn’t even mean them to be nasty – they were just repeating words they’d heard elsewhere. Later in life, I understood that honour forces people to react in different ways. In the end, I came to the conclusion that those with limited intellect or zero education were usually the first to provoke others for no real reason. And while it was often difficult for me not to react, I preferred to keep my convictions to myself. Skin colour, religion or social status don’t ever come between two people that love each other. So why wouldn’t I suppose that, when all kinds of different people support the team I happen to be playing for, we could all just get on together? Being a well-known sporting figure enables you to transmit messages of peace, harmony and support. It does not in any way help you to educate the hardcore element. I was booed by my own fans at Cagliari, at a time when monkey noises were not unusual. Rather than walking off the pitch or reacting aggressively, I tried my hardest to score, and my goals brought the majority of people back to their senses. My goals drowned out the unpleasantness.
What role can football play in this fight?
It’s a way of getting your message across. Its power is immeasurable. But the timing has to be right. When major figures in the game pull together, scourges like racism cannot last. A rolling football enthralls people from a young age and, symbolically, it has to keep rolling. That youthful innocence needs to continue into adulthood, so that people simply see those on the opposite side of the pitch as rivals rather than enemies. Football will never solve all of our problems and it is limited in what it can do, but I believe it is possible to use the sport to fight a number of battles, notably against racism and xenophobia.
Do you think that when Cameroon won the Olympic football tournament in 2000, you showed people another side to Africa?
How would that victory have changed the nature of football in Africa, or the image that people have of the continent? Teams all over the world started showing African nations respect a long time ago. Nigeria won the Olympic title in 1996 but I can’t say it changed my life, even if I was very proud of my ‘brothers’. African sport has been fighting and winning battles for many years. For example, the Kenyans are world-class long-distance runners, but they’re not going to transform their country overnight. On the other hand, the fact that these types of victories are highlighted shows that for far too long not enough attention was paid to our continent.
Did the FIFA World Cup in South Africa manage to dispel certain prejudices about the continent?
The positive publicity that Africa received was the most important victory and principal legacy of the tournament. And the critics were expecting the worst, remember. South Africa has a painful past, but despite having previously successfully organised the Rugby World Cup, there were still many doubters. I would like to have seen more time dedicated to praising the way in which people came together in harmony for the duration of the competition rather than to the nation’s supposed security problems.
You played in Italy, England, Japan, France and Libya. Does racism take the same form everywhere?
Racism is different – and sometimes non-existent, even – depending on where you happen to be and how much attention it is given. Everything comes back to the country’s culture. Racism wouldn’t really be discussed in Japan, whereas in Libya it might be used to provoke or unsettle. In Italy it seemed that there was an element of following the crowd, without necessarily truly believing in it. In England everyone appeared to be respectful of the rules and worried about repression. That’s just how I perceived things in those countries – obviously, it changed from one individual to the next.