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Exploring race and class at the 2014 World Cup

Am I my World Cup brother’s (goal)keeper? Earl Best tackles a delicate subject with all the tact and finesse of an elephant in the Serengeti…or a police raid Behind the Bridge:

There is a very real resemblance between Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, the tall, handsome, articulate, intelligent, talented, black, francophone pair of World Cup 2014 footballers, and me. Well, perhaps I exaggerate a little; I maybe don’t qualify as tall.

But that resemblance is not the reason I watched all five of the matches Les Bleus played in Brazil, starting with the convincing June 20 2-0 defeat of Honduras. I followed them closely all the way to their eventual quarter-final 0-1 elimination at the feet of Joachim Löw’s ruthless Germans.

Photo: France midfield star Paul Pogba.
Photo: France midfield star Paul Pogba.

No. My interest in French football dates back to the days of Michel Hidalgo’s inspirational 1982 squad which showcased that magnificent midfield trio of Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and Bernard Genghini.

The other day, however, watching Didier Deschamps’ side get the better of Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria, I found myself  wondering  whether I would have loved Platini’s unit less had the line-up not also included Jean Tigana and Marius Trésor….

And we’re not talking merely football skills and/or uniform colour; we’re talking—shades of Franz Fanon—black skins, blue kits.

Race and ethnicity in sport is an area I have scarcely begun to plumb. But I remember the subject rearing its insistent head during the 2012 London Olympics. In the September issue of the Trinidad and Tobago Review, I revealed that “race was already a huge part of the programme for me even before the report of the starter’s pistol sent the runners off in the opening track event.”

And I referred to the 1968 Mexico Olympics and John Carlos and Tommie Smith and the gloved Black Power salute. And my schooling and my education in the sixties. And The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and Angela Davis and Elridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.

And I discussed my reaction to the rivalry between the USA’s Carmelita Jeter and Jamaica’s Shelly-Anne Pryce.

And teenaged gymnast Gabby Douglas. Remember her?

The moment I became acutely aware that I had a problem was when America, white and black, began criticising the impressive teenager for her hairstyle almost at the same time as they were hailing Michael Phelps as the greatest Olympian. Most successful, yes, but greatest? And Gabby’s hair? Who the ass noticed? Who the ass cares?

Photo: Former United States Olympic gold medal winner Gabby Douglas.
Photo: Former United States Olympic gold medal winner Gabby Douglas.

What I saw—and heard and read—was an extraordinary child with an extraordinary dream and an extraordinary desire to beat the odds. She didn’t take the time to style her hair properly? She is letting the side down, embarrassing black women? Embarrassing?

For Heaven’s sake, she won a gold medal in an event where people of our colour rarely compete, far less win. And you talk to me about her hairstyle? Gimme a break!

But when the commentators everywhere, on the television and in the newspapers, began to praise Phelps to the skies, with nary a reminder about the ways in which he had fallen from grace, the possible racial contours of the issue began slowly to emerge.

And further on, of course, there was Usain Bolt.

But for me, it wasn’t a Caribbean flag that Bolt was flying or even a Jamaican flag; no. For me, inexplicably, it was the flag of blackness that he held high. The list of black 100m winners stretched from Germany in 1936 to Beijing in 2008, with the only aberration Alan Wells’ 1980 victory in Moscow. But Bolt’s unprecedented double double completed in London last month was still a triumph for his race.

And then last Monday, June 30, as the camera zoomed in on the faces of the players against the backdrop of the unmistakeable strains of the Marseillaise filling Brasilia’s Estadio Nacional, there it was again. Nagging, insistent, demanding, dictatorial even. Refusing to take no for an answer.

Sure there are Pogba and Matuidi. And Patrice Evra and Mamadou Sakho and Loic Rémy. And Bacary Sagna and Moussa Sissoko and others of their hue in the squad.

Photo: Can we play football monsieur? Germany coach Joachim Löw (left) tries to keep the ball from France defender Patrice Evra. (Copyright AFP 2014/Patrik Stollarz)
Photo: Can we play football monsieur?
Germany coach Joachim Löw (left) tries to keep the ball from France defender Patrice Evra.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Patrik Stollarz)

But tell me again, why are you backing this side? Didn’t you see? Weren’t you looking while the National Anthem of Nigeria was being played?

Did you see any face that wasn’t the same colour as yours?

And once more, in my mind’s eye, I saw the film of the infamous Hand of God 1986 World Cup: England vs Argentina quarter-final. Coach Bobby Robson overlooked John Barnes until the eleventh hour. But, desperate for a goal to reduce the 0-2 deficit, he gave him his chance with just a quarter of an hour of regulation time left. The Liverpool winger with the wicked left foot provided one on a platter for Gary Lineker and delivered a near perfect cross to set up a second.

A kn. That was all that separated Lineker from the cross… and England from the equaliser.

To my knowledge, Robson has never satisfactorily explained publicly why the impressive Barnes’ chance had not come earlier in the tournament. How could he have? And start a race riot?

Anyway, added to the Geoff Hurst ‘tief’ goal of 1966, that match reinforced my status as a footballing Anglophobe, who always wants to see HMS QEXI quickly torpedoed World Cup after World Cup.

So how could I be a France supporter? How could I, so anti-Red, White and Blue after 1970, so deliberately unsupportive of the Red, White and Black after November 1989, be rooting for the Bleu, Blanc, Rouge in this encounter? What? Was black beautiful only in small helpings?

Photo: Argentina captain Lionel Messi (right) and Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama share a light moment during their Group F contest. (Copyright AFP 2014/Pedro Ugarte)
Photo: Argentina captain Lionel Messi (right) and Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama share a light moment during their Group F contest.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Pedro Ugarte)

It made no sense. Except that resident in my head were Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Gilbert Bécaud and Charles Aznavour. And two flies in the milk and, therefore, in the ointment, Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sedar Senghor.

With only 15 regulation minutes left, the wimp in me, like the cleric in Jean Genet’s play who suggested painting the host white and black on alternate sides, kept hoping foolishly for a draw. In a knockout match.

Fortunately, Pogba’s 79th minute header settled it. At least in my heart. “Pristine loyalties,” in my late brother’s words, won out. I didn’t celebrate; I commiserated.

So, I think I’m okay now, comfortable in the castle of my skin.

But what about my head? Might the reality be, for instance, that Pélé is not quite so good as Maradona and Messi?

Moscow 2018. Make a believer of me…

AboutEarl Best

Earl Best
Earl Best taught cricket, French, football and Spanish at QRC for many years and has written consistently for the Tapia and the Trinidad and Tobago Review since the 1970's. He is also a former sports editor at the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express and is now a senior lecturer in Journalism at COSTAATT.

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23 comments

  1. Seriously Mr. Best, Seriously? Did anyone out there ever notice the colour of Chris Birchall’s skin when he helped us go to the World Cup? Did you even stop to think that the ‘complexion’ of this is a complete inversion of the John Barnes case? I didn’t see you atop the castle of your skin hurling bananas in retribution.

  2. Mr. Best. We’ll done. I had began an essay about why I have a hard time backing the u.s. National team. I was 3000 words in before my laptop was stolen couple weeks ago. That’s a different story but my viewing of the cup and my analyses of the evolution of the game have everything to do w Empire’s attempts over the years to deny its black face and the ways in which that black face, it’s peculiar history and the demands of the game conspire to change the stylistic face of the game. Meanwhile go to somecallitballin.com & catch my essay there abt why we watche(d) Brazil

  3. Exactly Prince, we don’t have that problem in our sport. As far as i am aware our coaches pick the best possible team, race and class have never been an issue, Although………..some people at Joe Public may argue about management interference in the selection of teams in the past, but………nationally we don’t have that problem.

  4. Let’s look at Italy and Germany. 2 countries where Africans are racially abused. They both have one African each on their team. They are picked because they are good enough to make the team. Can their be more I am sure. If you are good enough you play. Football managers want to win football matches

  5. Everybody want to win. The best players will play. Same with cricket. You might say it’s ah reverse in the Trinidad cricket team. Best players play. I don’t see any race issue

  6. Our current U-18 team have two players ( check link ). I do not know of any one who was discriminated against because of their race in any of our national football team. Our athletics teams over the years were, and still is predominantly afrocentric, but I do not know of anyone from any other race who produced better times and were more deserving to be on these relay teams, that was not allowed to represent their country . With regards to sports the playing field has always been level for EVERYONE. –http://int.soccerway.com/teams/trinidad-and-tobago/trinidad-and-tobago-u17/13961/

  7. There was a Ramkissoon too who player for Belmont with Darin Lewis in the “shot call” era. Massive fellah who played left back. Can’t remember his name now. He was a good prospect and might have played with the youth team as well.

  8. Joel Gibbons is the player in red. That is at the Wired868 Football Festival in January.

  9. Joel Gibbons and Maurice Loregnard too who both played for our youth national teams.

  10. Alvin Thomas had a good career too. Anthony Dhanoolal played for the senior team for a few years in the 90s.
    Keeron Benito, Kendall Jagdeosingh, Stephen Cruickshank and Curtis Gonzales are all mixed. Gonzales is in the team right now. But then they wouldn’t stand out as predominantly Indian. That might make Dhanoolal the last senior player I can think of.

  11. I was trying to remember that name Junior Noel. Thanks.

  12. Sana, we can go back even further to the like of outstanding Bobby Sookram.

  13. You know I don’t really care what race you are, once you play good ball, I give you that props. I never ever bring race into a discussion of football.

  14. Thanks Lasana. At least now I have some information I can reference.

  15. You’re going to send me to Google with that one!

  16. Yaya Toure is the best example I think Prince. But Pogba too.
    Vernal, there have been a few Indo stand outs in the past. The last player I remember was Gary Gibbons who was a national youth team player.
    I’m not sure if Anthony Sherwood counts. Arnold Dwarika was mixed and he had a top career.
    There was Vijay Samarooo not so long ago on the national youth team. There have always been players knocking about. I don’t think they have been left out. But there just are no outstanding candidates at senior level.

  17. Earl,forgot Valerie Borzof 1972 Berlin .

    • That was my first thought.

      How could a Trini forget Valerie Borzov who was beaten by Hasely Crawford in the 1976 Olympics? The announcers, including OJ Simpson, were only talking before the race about Borzov, and the absence of Harvey Glance.
      In 1978 at the Commonwealth Games, Allan Wells beat both Crawford and Don Quarrie. They were keying on each other and they forgot about Wells.

  18. A close friend of mine recently pointed out that there are no Indo players on the Soca Warrior squad and asked me why.
    I had to admit that not only did I not know, but I had honestly never noticed in my fervor to support my team. The question has lingered in my mind ever since and to be honest, ever since that day I have not been able to enjoy a Warriors game as before because my thoughts would invariably turn to my Indo-Trini brethren wondering what they must be thinking.

    • The days of Bobby Sookram and Ellis and Vernon Sadaphal are long gone. When we were a more together people, many Indo-Trinis used to play football. Although I saw a few Indo names on our last under 17 squad.
      Not only that, Rafeek Khan in Barrackpore, Bissoon Birsingh of PYM League in Aranguez, and Mervina from around the Bridge, were Indo-Trinis who ran successful football leagues.

  19. Lasana Liburd remember we had a discussion a looking time ago about a true center mid of African descent. Maybe Pobga can fill that mold.