Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France

Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France

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by Laurent Dubois

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When France both hosted and won the World Cup in 1998, the face of its star player, Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe. During the 2006 World Cup finals, Zidane stunned the country by ending his spectacular career with an assault on an Italian player. In Soccer Empire, Laurent Dubois illuminates the


When France both hosted and won the World Cup in 1998, the face of its star player, Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe. During the 2006 World Cup finals, Zidane stunned the country by ending his spectacular career with an assault on an Italian player. In Soccer Empire, Laurent Dubois illuminates the connections between empire and sport by tracing the story of World Cup soccer, from the Cup’s French origins in the 1930s to Africa and the Caribbean and back again. As he vividly recounts the lives of two of soccer’s most electrifying players, Zidane and his outspoken teammate, Lilian Thuram, Dubois deepens our understanding of the legacies of empire that persist in Europe and brilliantly captures the power of soccer to change the nation and the world.

Editorial Reviews

Sean Callahan
In his incisive, if at times overwritten, Soccer Empire, history professor Laurent Dubois explores how France's self-image and colonial history are intertwined with Les Bleus, the national team.
—The Washington Post
The New York Times

“Drills down to uncover the relationship among politics, race and the legacy of empire.”
Chronicle Of Higher Education


“Tale of how even the most seemingly apolitical institutions in a society can become the battlegrounds for its most pressing questions of identity and ambition.”
Choice - A.-P. Durand

“The best, most important contribution to soccer scholarship to date. . . .A timely and wonderful book.”
Times Literary Supplement (TLS)

“Soccer Empire has a heart that beats louder than most, and is all the better for it.”
Library Journal
Zidane and Thuram, names synonymous with France's soccer fortunes, are as meaningful in the soccer world as Lebron and Kobe are to basketball fans. These two players, especially the electrifying Zinedine Zidane, are the central figures in this well-researched, well-written history of the game in France. Focusing on France's 1998 World Cup victory on French soil and the disgrace of the 2006 finals when Zidane inexplicably butted an Italian player and cost his team the final match, Dubois (French & history, Duke Univ.) weaves an intriguing tale of soccer within the matrix of France's history of colonialism, taking into account race and the powerful social forces in France and the international community. Highly recommended for serious soccer fans.

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University of California Press
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Soccer Empire

The World Cup and the Future of France

By Laurent Dubois


Copyright © 2010 Laurent Dubois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94574-6


A Beautiful Harvest

Three hundred fifty million people tuned in on 16 November 2005 to watch "paunchy men pulling pieces of paper out of bowls." At the headquarters of F.I.F.A. (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association), lots were being drawn to determine which group each nation that had qualified for the 2006 World Cup would be in. The fate of teams, and of their fans, lay in the balance, for if a team ends up in a particularly competitive group—commentators always dub one group of teams the "group of death"—their chances of making it out of the first round of play are seriously diminished. Those "paunchy men" in Switzerland, in other words, determine the fate of nations.

Through its many competitions and its lucrative licensing and broadcasting deals, F.I.F.A. controls the world of international football. Founded in 1904 by two men, one from France and one from Holland, F.I.F.A.'s original mandate was to "police" the growth of European football clubs and assure the consistent application of the rules of football across international borders. It was originally composed entirely of European countries, but by 1914 Argentina, Chile, the United States, and South Africa had joined. Today F.I.F.A. boasts more member nations than the U.N. and is one of the most important and wealthiest international organizations on the globe. Its fame and fortune rest primarily on a competition, invented by an unassuming man and mediocre football player, from a small French town: Jules Rimet.

* * *

In a photograph taken during World War I Rimet poses with seven soldiers in a trench. All of them stare at the camera, one puffing wearily on a cigarette, while another soldier stands on the ground above them. After arriving at the front in 1914, Rimet rose rapidly to the rank of lieutenant, making his mark by inventing an instrument called the Télémire, which measures distance across open space, information vital for the effective firing of artillery at enemy trenches. Like other French soldiers, Rimet would have found that in the hell of the trenches was a startlingly diverse community of soldiers, gathered from throughout the nation and the empire.

Watching their troops decimated during the early months of the war, French officials turned to what one officer described as "an inexhaustible reservoir of men": France's African colonies. The 380,000 soldiers recruited in North, West, and Central Africa were often used as shock troops in trench warfare. One officer described West African soldiers as "cannon fodder" whose role was to die "in place of good Frenchmen." At least thirty thousand West African soldiers were killed, and many others returned home permanently disabled. A few years before the war, the French minister of war demanded that Africa pay back "the men and the blood" France had expended bringing civilization to the continent, "with interest." Many African veterans who survived the trenches, though, believed France owed them. In one town in Mali after the war, a veteran who had left both legs and a forearm in the trenches of France sat in front of the local colonial commander's officers day after day, demanding compensation for what he had lost.

Some Caribbean and African elites saw the war as an opportunity for the colonized to simultaneously demonstrate their loyalty and demand political equality. In 1916 two black politicians—Blaise Diagne, a representative from Senegal, and Gratien Candace, from Guadeloupe—described the recruitment of colonial soldiers as the "most beautiful harvest of devotion to France that history has ever known.... Muslim Algeria, Morocco, black Africa, Madagascar, and Indochina," all sent soldiers, and France "affirmed its complete unity above any question of origin or race."

Although France thought of the colonial soldiers as volunteers, one French colonial governor admitted that very few were volunteers "in the real sense of the word." Recruits and their families had few illusions. One Algerian described how his three brothers were "forcibly recruited by the state." In West Africa colonial officials ordered local indigenous leaders to provide them with soldiers, and they often offered men the community considered "dispensable"—"the poor, slaves, orphans, outcasts, or even younger sons"—who had little choice in the matter.

What about the soldiers in the photograph with Rimet? They are difficult to identify with any certainty. They might have been recruited in the Antilles, where all residents were considered French citizens and therefore served directly in French infantry units, rather than in colonial regiments, alongside Rimet and other soldiers recruited in metropolitan France. But their uniforms look more like American or British uniforms than French ones. These soldiers were probably among the African Americans who fought in the war starting in 1917, most of whom were incorporated directly into French units and put under the command of French officers like Rimet. Because American officers were concerned that French officers would treat the African American soldiers as equals, the French army issued a secret document—later denounced in the National Assembly by representatives from Guadeloupe—insisting that officers follow American standards of racial segregation and avoid eating or shaking hands with these troops or spending time talking to them about anything but military matters. Rimet, it seems, ignored the directive at least long enough to have a photograph taken as a keepsake, something to bring home from the war. Perhaps encounters with these soldiers, or with others who came from other continents to fight for France, helped shape the dream Rimet pursued when he returned from the front: to use a ball instead of bullets to resolve international conflict.

* * *

Born in 1873 in the tiny French village of Theuley-les-Lavoncourt, in a region close to the German border, Rimet moved with his family to Paris when he was eleven. It was probably there that he first encountered football. The game crossed the channel from England in the late nineteenth century, and in 1872 France's first football club was formed in the Atlantic port of Le Havre. During the 1870s it was already being played in parks in Paris, where English expatriates founded a club in 1887 and where a French club was founded in 1892. Rimet's family lived close to Napoleon's tomb at the Hotel des Invalides, where, on the grass esplanade in front, he played football with friends. He was never much of a player, but he came to believe deeply in the game as a tool for education and social progress, an embodiment of fair play that inculcated virtue in those who played it. In this Rimet was part of a larger movement, for in England many boosters of the sport saw it as an ideal way to train young men for lives of service both at home and throughout the British Empire. He also believed it could help create bonds within a French population divided by class, politics, and religion. In 1897 he created a sporting association called the Red Star Club and coached its football team to a few victories in French tournaments before the war.

In the decades before World War I football also spread informally through the French Empire with sailors, settlers, and soldiers. It was immediately popular in the French Caribbean and in Algeria. An Algerian soldier named Ali Hamrouchi, for instance, who died at the front in 1914, had been a goalie on a local club since 1906, and there were many others like him. Football also spread (though more slowly) into the colonies of West and Central Africa, where teachers and missionaries considered it an ideal vehicle for spreading the values of European civilization. Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the modern Olympics, wrote in 1912 that sports could help make the colonized "more malleable." Of course, he admitted, there was always a danger that the colonized would get too good at them. A victory of "the dominated race over the dominant race," Coubertin wrote, could have "dangerous implications" and might "encourage rebellion." Some sports, he conceded, might even provide training for such a rebellion. But Coubertin believed officials could avoid such dangers as long as they didn't turn sports matches into "official spectacles" at which "an indigenous victory" could serve to "diminish the authority of the governors."

Soldiers from the colonies who hadn't played football at home before World War I were likely to encounter it on the battlefield. All soldiers needed to play was a ball and some open space, which they found easily in the fields at the rear of the front. English soldiers organized games from the moment the war began, and France, Britain, and Germany sent "thousands of balls" to the front. Footballs were sometimes used in charges by British troops, with officers kicking a ball out of the trenches and soldiers running out after it. The technique worked in part because the style of "kick and run" was still prevalent in England: a team ran alongside the player with the ball, blocking other players, the way players still do in American football and rugby. In one German prison camp British prisoners created "leagues and elimination competitions, disciplinary boards, and appeals committees" and organized matches that drew as many as a thousand spectators, including guards. Austrian prisoners of war in Russian camps also organized football matches. The game famously offered a brief reprieve from the hell of conflict during one Christmas truce when German and Allied soldiers played football with each other. Although the war disrupted leagues and tournaments, it gained new converts for the sport. "French rural conscripts" who often had "never seen the game" learned to play, and kept doing so when they went home. Many colonial soldiers also had their first introduction to the sport during the war, and some went home carrying footballs.

When he came home at the end of World War I, Rimet continued his work as a booster for football. In 1919 he was elected president of the newly formed Fédération Française de Football Association (F.F.F.A., today the F.F.F.), which oversaw football clubs throughout metropolitan France as well as its colonial territories and ran France's major football competition, the French Cup. He remained president until 1945, during decades that saw a massive expansion of the sport in France. By the late 1930s there were four thousand official matches taking place every week, drawing as many as two million spectators. A "veritable sports intelligentsia" arose in France, with writers commenting on football matches in newspapers, expanding their readership and the number of football fans at the same time. Political parties and movements in France understood the power of the sport and played an important part in its diffusion. The French Communist Party, for instance, while criticizing the development of sport as a consumer spectacle, used football matches as opportunities for agitation and recruitment. At times communist groups also formed their own amateur clubs and encouraged the enjoyment of sport in what they considered its "pure" form, as a celebration of solidarity and collective values.

In 1920 Rimet was selected as the new president of the Federation International de Football Association, founded in 1904. He announced his hopes that a "renaissance" of sporting culture would redirect the passions and conflicts of the contemporary world "towards peaceful contests in the stadium, where foundational violence is submitted to discipline and the rules of the game, loyal and wise, and where the benefits of victory are limited to the wild joy of winning." He remained president for twenty-three years and created the event that F.I.F.A. is now most famous for: the World Cup. Having survived the trenches of World War I, Rimet helped invent a new field of international conflict, one that had the major virtue of being much less deadly than the killing fields he had survived.

* * *

At the 1924 Olympics a remarkable team from Uruguay took the football competition by storm, winning the gold medal in front of sixty thousand spectators, trouncing many teams (including the U.S. and France) along the way. The Uruguayans repeated this victory in 1928. These victories seared themselves into the Uruguayan national consciousness. "The sky-blue shirt," writes Edouardo Galeano, "was proof of the existence of the nation: Uruguay was not a mistake. Soccer pulled this tiny country out of the shadows of universal anonymity." The team, and particularly its star black player, José Leandro Andrade, were welcomed as celebrities and feted in Paris. Uruguay's triumph inspired Jules Rimet and his colleagues at F.I.F.A. to create a new international football competition, which, unlike the Olympics, would not be limited to amateur players.

The sport took root in Latin America starting in the 1860s, brought by sailors, merchants, and government representatives as Britain asserted itself as the main commercial power in the region. In 1916 Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile held an international football tournament, which gave birth to a regional football organization called the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol. From the beginning, the symbolic stakes involved in these competitions were high, and there were controversies about the composition of certain teams. In 1916 a Chilean journalist accused the Uruguayans of fielding two professional players from Africa, unfairly breaking regulations that allowed only Uruguayan nationals to play on the team. In fact, however, these two players were Uruguayans whose ancestors had been slaves.

After the 1928 Olympic games F.I.F.A. accepted a motion put forth by its French delegate, Henry Delaunay, to create a "competition called the 'World Cup,'" to take place every four years. The first competition was scheduled for 1930, and F.I.F.A. selected Uruguay, which was celebrating the centennial of its independence in 1830, as the host. Only four European teams made the crossing to Uruguay. France was one of them, and on 13 July 1930 the French team defeated Mexico in the first game of the first World Cup tournament. Uruguay and Argentina faced off in the final, and thirty thousand Argentine fans left Buenos Aires to cross the river to Montevideo to watch. In what some Uruguayans probably took as a welcome sign that God (or at least nature) was on their side, a thick fog descended over the river, preventing the boats from carrying many Argentine fans to the game. Uruguay won and took home the gold-plated Jules Rimet trophy depicting Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

The second World Cup was organized in 1934 in Rome, under the watchful gaze of Mussolini, who used the tournament to showcase the glories of Italy and his regime, as Hitler would do for Germany during the Olympics two years later. Mussolini trumpeted Italy's victory as a public demonstration of Italian superiority. The team was strengthened by the inclusion of several Argentine players of Italian ancestry who were granted dual-nationality so they could play. But one of the stars of the Italian national team, Angelo Schiavio, refused to join Mussolini's party. The Italian coach convinced the government to keep Schiavio on the team anyway, and he scored a crucial goal. In 1938, as the third World Cup began in Paris, some hoped that the tournament might be a force for peace. But that optimism was difficult to sustain. The Italian team, which won its second tournament that year, wore black shirts—like the Fascist paramilitaries then operating in Italy—in their game against France. During the tournament the German team at one point sang the National Socialist anthem and raised their arms in a Nazi salute. The Austrian team never got to participate in the competition because the nation of Austria, just annexed by Germany, had ceased to exist.

Germany fielded several Austrian players in the competition. The French team also had an Austrian, Gusti Jordan, though they used a simpler technique to get him than the Germans had: they made him a French citizen. Jordan announced that he was "very moved, happy and proud" to have been welcomed into the "family of French footballers" and was honored to wear the tricolor jersey. One French journalist complained, "It's indecent to include Jordan, who has been Austrian for three decades, who has barely abandoned his country for ours. Since he doesn't know what it is to be French, he can't proudly carry our national colors." But a former captain of the French team, Gabriel Hanot, defended Jordan, declaring that he was "French in every way, French for football, not in three months or six months, but immediately, without discussion or quibbling."


Excerpted from Soccer Empire by Laurent Dubois. Copyright © 2010 Laurent Dubois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"An intriguing tale of soccer within the matrix of France's history of colonialism." STARRED REVIEW—Library Journal

"Drills down to uncover the relationship among politics, race and the legacy of empire."—The New York Times

"Excellent"—Chronicle of Higher Education

"Tale of how even the most seemingly apolitical institutions in a society can become the battlegrounds for its most pressing questions of identity and ambition."—

"Soccer Empire has a heart that beats louder than most, and is all the better for it."—Times Literary Supplement (Tls)

Meet the Author

Laurent Dubois is Professor of French and History at Duke University. He is the author of many award-winning books, including Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, which was a Best Book of the Los Angeles Times and a Notable Book of the Christian Science Monitor.

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Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is awesome! It shows how ww1 has a big impact on the french football! It also tells about how they won the 1994 world cup in France, and on how they got to the final of the 2006 world cup final. I recomend it to people who love french football or if you are just a regular football fan! ( too bad they did so horrible in the 2010 world cup)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Zidane is the best in the entire universe
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Noone likes Theiry Henry
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thierry henry is SO awesome!!!
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