French football's 'foreign' legion
© FIFA.com

It is 12 July 1998, and France have just won the World Cup, beating Brazil 3-0 in the final. The whole country is ecstatic. Hundreds of thousands of people pour onto the Champs-Elysees to celebrate the triumph of this multicultural team, known affectionately as the 'Black-Blanc-Beur' (Black, White, Arab), seen as representing a real model of integration.

Twelve years later, in the lead-up to the first-ever FIFA World Cup™ on the African continent, the French capital’s National Centre of Immigration History decided to examine the relationship between football and immigration and organised a retrospective analysing the universal phenomenon that is football. The 'Allez la France! Football et immigration' exhibition was divided into four parts: the English origins of the game and how it spread in France, the contribution of foreign players to the French league since its establishment in 1932, the different generations of France players between 1938 and 1998 who were of immigrant origin, and finally, the 'Café des sports', a forum for exchange and debate.

The exhibition, which opened on 26 May 2010 and was initially scheduled to run until October 2010, was so successful that the organisers decided to extend it until 2 January. “We wanted to address the history of immigration thematically, and the theme of football was interesting since it tied in with the World Cup,” the exhibition’s curator Fabrice Grognet told FIFA World. "'Allez la France! Football et immigration’ has been well reviewed in the press and has also been popular with school groups, which is why we have decided to extend the exhibition,” he added. 

Made in England
Visitors were immersed in a stadium atmosphere as soon as they entered the first room covered in artifi cial turf and containing piped supporters’ chants and other stadium noises. This first part of the exhibition focused on the origins of football, which date back to the mid-19th century in England. There were cabinets full of artefacts on loan from FIFA, the French Football Association, the National Football Museum in Preston, England, and the French National Sports Museum. The collection included some of the earliest footballers’ kits, including English schoolboys’ corduroy caps, baggy trousers (which were the precursor to shorts), boots and leather footballs – highlighting the evolution of the game since then.

The theme of immigration was then introduced for the first time in the section on the popularisation of football in France. In France, football was originally something of an elitist sport, and was played in the army and the most prestigious universities, as is depicted in a series of photos taken at the end of the 19th century of a training session at the École alsacienne in the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris. Football only became a popular sport in France as a result of World War I.

“During the war of the trenches, there were long periods without any combat at all, and so some of the conscripts who played football spread the game when they got home,” explained Fabrice Grognet. In the 1920s, there was then a growing trend towards recruiting foreign players. Automobile magnate Jean- Pierre Peugeot’s FC Sochaux and Isidore Odoric’s Stade Rennais both predate the professionalisation of football in France. “Peugeot created the club to give their brand an image and to get their workers behind the brand name. They tried to put together a dream team by recruiting Uruguayan, Swiss and English players,” said the exhibition curator.

The fact that football was still an amateur sport in France at the time was a problem. After the club was disqualified from the French league, Jean-Pierre Peugeot decided to establish his self-titled cup in 1930, which visitors were able to admire in a cabinet devoted to the early days of professional football in France.

African influence
In the second part of the exhibition, the focus was on the French league as a mirror of French society. Totems representing 11 foreign players who left their mark on the French league were erected in the middle of the room. Among them were Rudolph Hiden, the Austrian-born goalkeeper, and Uruguayan Pedro Duhart, both of whom became naturalised Frenchmen in the 1930s, as well as Pedro Miguel Pauleta from Portugal, Osvaldo Piazza from Argentina and Salif Keita from Mali. Also included among the exhibits were portraits, profiles and jerseys of those who might be considered the 'reserves', including Algerians Nourredine Kourichi and Moustapha Dahleb as well as Jean- Marc Adjovi-Boco from Benin. 

From 1960 onwards, French clubs started looking for talent in the former African colonies, with Cameroonian Eugene N’Jo Lea and Malian Salif Keita paving the way for later stars such as Liberia’s George Weah, Ghana’s Abedi Pelé and Côte d’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba. An audiovisual exhibit told the story of Salif Keita, a former forward with AS Saint-Etienne and the current president of the Malian Football Association. At another installation, visitors could listen to the views of Cameroonian Joseph Antoine Bell, a key figure in the fight against racism in French football in the 1980s, as the former Olympique de Marseille and Bordeaux goalkeeper discussed the difficulties African players faced in integrating at the time.

The third part of the exhibition focused on four generations of the French national team between 1938 and 1998, including a display of memorabilia from the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 loaned by FIFA, along with a small screen on the fl oor playing images of that inaugural competition. The walls were meanwhile covered in team photos of four generations of the French team. Included in the 1938 team photo is Raoul Diagne, originally from Senegal, who was the first black player to step out for France in 1931.

Latter day legends, modern day heroes
The French team for the 1938 FIFA World Cup on home ground featured other immigrants such as Roger Courtois, originally from Switzerland, and Auguste Jordan, from Austria. At the time, the far-right press was up in arms about the participation of these players in the World Cup and criticised the fast-tracked naturalisation of these players on the grounds that they were talented footballers.

“Starting in the 1950s, we began to see a sort of meritocracy through sport. The team for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden featured Raymond Kopa – originally Kopascweski – and Maryan Wisnieski, both the children of Polish immigrants. This marked the start of a generation of labourers’ sons for whom football was a source of social mobility,” explained Fabrice Grognet. The 1986 generation of Michel Platini, Luis Fernandez and Yannick Stopyra followed in the footsteps of the 1958 team.

Here, again visitors could watch videos of the players in their own words. Then the spotlight switched to the 1998 World Cup-winning generation of Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and Youri Djorkaeff, with footage of the 1998 World Cup final in France giving visitors the chance to relive the heady moments of France’s multicultural victory.

“Unlike other national teams, the French team featured naturalised players and players with immigrant backgrounds or from former colonies very early on, and some of them went on to become real stars,” says Fabrice Grognet. “Of course, today, we cannot say that intolerance has disappeared completely from sport and there is still probably too much politics involved. Often it is the individuals who are judged rather than their performances, so when the French team underperforms, there are still some people who take it out on the players with immigrant origins.”

Stressing the fact that immigration and national “belonging” is rarely as simple as black and white, the final part of the exhibition was given over to a 'Café des sports', set up as a social meeting place for exchanges and debate. Bistro tables were fitted with screens showing images on the theme of belonging – to a local area, nation or identity. The videos focused on the rivalry between French league clubs Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille, the pitch invasion at the Stade de France during the friendly match between France and Algeria in 2001, and the situation of Portuguese immigrants in the Paris region in the 1980s.

“What we hope visitors came away from this exhibition with was a sense that we don’t just have one identity, but several,” concludes Fabrice Grognet. For all those who did not get a chance to see this fascinating exhibition, a book of the same name ('Allez la France! Football et immigration') has been published by the centre.