As I write these lines, about one billion football fans across the world have already congregated around TV and radio sets to watch or listen to this year’s World Cup finals between France and Italy, two outsiders whom the bookmakers did not expect to be the last men standing. Football aficionados will tell you that this is the first all-European World Cup finals since 1982 when Italy beat Germany to win the trophy. They will also remind you that this will be the last game and final au revoir in the scintillating football career of Zinedine Zidane, three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and legendary captain of the French national team.
To sports history buffs, however, today’s finals will be a throwback to another era in Germany’s history in which the Berlin Olympic Stadium, the venue for today's finals, was also the central character. The last major international sporting event to take place in the stadium was the 1936 Olympic Games which were meant to showcase the might of Hitler's Nazi Germany and the superiority of the Aryan race. Of course, things did not go as planned; today the stadium is remembered as the hallowed ground where Black American athlete Jesse Owens shattered the myth of white invincibility by breaking four world records in track and field, in front of an apoplectic Fuhrer who stormed out of the stadium in anger.
Germany has long since moved on. Although it is still grappling with problems stemming from the activities of neo-Nazi groups and the (non)integration of immigrant communities such as the Turks, it is a light years ahead of Nazi Germany in terms of race relations. In fact, the Mannschaft, Germany's beloved national football team – that symbol of German efficiency and resilience - has within its ranks two players of African descent, among them a certain Gerald Asamoah who was born in Ghana -- the first Black to play for the Germans [France is decades ahead of Germany in this regard - Marius Tresor captained les Bleus way back in 1978].
Nonetheless, the ghost of 1936 will still hover over the Berlin Olympic stadium today primarily because of the composition and history of the current French national team. The total dominance of French football in the last decade by players of African origin will be on full display when Les Bleues step on the world stage to take on Italy’s Squadra Azzura.
Led by the venerated Zinedine Zidane who is of Algerian-descent, the French team will include African born players such as Patrick Vieira, Claude Makelele, and Alain "Boum Boum" Boumsong from Senegal, Congo and Cameroon respectively, and others of African descent such as Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram, Malouda, Abidal, Saha, Govou, Wiltord, etc. In fact, all but two players in the team's starting lineup are of African descent.
However, it will not just be an African Rainbow Coalition on display in Berlin today; the French team will consist of a band of players who have been the object of unfair criticism and even racist attacks in the last few years, particularly from the French Far Right, just because of the color of their skin.
After its dismal performance in the 2002 World Cup in Korea, the team which had won the World Cup just four years earlier with virtually the same group of players was taken to the cleaners. According to proponents of French purity, the French team would have performed better if only it had been made up primarily, if not exclusively, of joueurs de souche (i.e., players of European ancestry) who truly represented the "essence and soul of La France". As the notorious Jean Marie Le Pen stated, the team was "not a real French team."
And after a very shaky start this year in Germany, shrill calls for the "whitening" of the French national team, which had allegedly been taken hostage by aging, over hyped and overpaid blacks with little or no commitment to the Tricolor, were heard from the usual quarters.
Of course the French racists have gone underground since France qualified for the second round then went on to eliminate Spain, favorites Brazil, and Portugal on its way to the finals. Like the African Tirailleurs who came to the rescue of the French empire in the first and second World Wars, today's black players – many of whom grew up in the poverty-striken Banlieus where French keep their immigrants at bay – have once again come to the rescue.
Today, the greatest generation in French football (some say the greatest team out of Africa...) will write the final chapter of a fairy tale which began at the Parc de Prince in Paris in 1998 when it routed Brazil (again!) to win the World Cup. Not only is Zidane playing for the last time for club and country, this is most likely the last major international outing for many in France’s aging African armada (Vieira, Makele, Thuram, Wiltord…) who are at the twilight of their careers. Today’s game therefore marks the changing of the guard as a new generation takes over. This is without doubt a final laden with symbolism and history.
From a purely intellectual perspective, I wouldn’t mind seeing Italy give it to the French (most Cameroonians will understand...). However, the African, the history buff, and the eternal supporter of the underdog in me is unapologetically pro-France today. I hope that the French team lifts the trophy this afternoon so that they can rub it in the face of every French racist and lift up the spirits of France's ostracized and persecuted immigrant community in the process, and, in the spirit of Jesse Owens 70 years earlier, posthumously thumb their noses at the Fuhrer and the ideology that he represented.
That will truly be a moment to behold!
That said, whatever the outcome of today’s finals, this French team, the likes of which we may never see for decades to come, will forever be remembered for their rise to the top against all odds. They came, they saw, left their imprint, and then rode off into the sunset with grace.
Forza Italia? No, “Allez les Bleus!” (Sorry, "Allez les Blacks!!!!")