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December 2, 2013
So, yesterday, Paris Saint-Germain started their game against Olympique Lyonnais without a single French player? And this attracted a great lot of attention. This is hardly surprising since the number of foreign players in club teams is a staple of the media. It is more surprising the topic is still attracting media & public attention, since this is hardly the first time. English club Chelsea first did it on Boxing Day 1999. In France, OM did it on 8 August 2003 & Arsenal played with an all-foreign squad (11 players who start the game plus all the potential substitutes) on Valentine Day 2005. It is also surprising, since after a few years of researching the issue for a PhD at the University of Cambridge (Trinity Hall & Centre of International Studies), it appeared very clearly to me that the presence of foreign players in a team is actually a non-issue for the supporters of the club.
To sum up quickly the results presented in my book Foreign Supporters and Football Players: The Old Firm, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain (an abridged version of my PhD published upon joining ESSCA), supporters are on the whole very happy with foreign players because:
(a) The identity of club is rarely national : it is above all local – this may come as a shocking surprise to some but a player from Manchester is as ‘foreign’ to an Arsenal supporter as a player from France or Sénégal ; & in some case it is even worse to come from the territory of a team seen as an ‘enemy’ than from abroad. Ask a PSG supporter whether they’d rather have a Marseilles-through-and-through player or a player of equal sporting value from Germany? Of course, players which have similar roots as the supporters are on the whole more supported: this why Ashley Cole’s leaving for Chelsea was seen as a betrayal for a majority of Arsenal fans. For an Arsenal, he was ‘one of us who made it, who accomplished our dream’. For that reason, there is little doubt that Mamadou Sakho or Adrien Rabiot attract more support from PSG fans than some other players with no link with PSG, Paris or its suburbs.
(b) The supporters may be foreigners – & this very clearly the case when the locality of the club has a huge population from migrant descent, or the club has a global reach. PSG even consciously signed foreign players for that reason: the great stars of the 1970s & 1980s at PSG are Mustapha Dahleb & Safet Susic, respectively Algerian & Yugoslavian (then Bosnian). This is no coincidence: Paris is home to a huge population from North-African descent; & a relatively small but very football-conscious population from the Former Republics of Yugoslavia. The signing of David Beckham by PSG must also be seen as a decision based not only on grounds pertaining to sport but also on the wish to make the PSG brand even more global.
(c) The reasons why football fans support a team are numerous, as Christian Bromberger has analysed in his seminal work Le Match de Football, they include the composition of the team (hence the nationality of the players) but also the style of the team or the personality of the players is also of prime importance. Arsenal’s style of play is often described as continental (a British concept meaning: ‘not from Britain’ or ‘foreign’) & this has actually attracted them supporters. The personality of the players also shows the difference between ‘foreign’ & ‘national’ may be interpreted in various ways. For many Arsenal supporters, Frenchmen Patrick Vieira & Emmanuel Petit were seen as playing football in a very English way – sometimes called ‘physical’ which is a euphemism for ‘with some brutality’, here. There is little doubt that in a city very conscious of its Latin roots & its place on the global scene, Brazilian player Raï has managed to embody Paris in a way that few French players have.
(d) The emblems of the club are also majorly important because the supporters can project their own identity onto it – this is the very idea behind Pierre Nora’s Lieux de Mémoire: in times of change some places, objects etc. start to embody continuity with the past & at PSG the logo & the club colours especially as displayed on the jersey, have played this role.
(e) However identities & symbols do change : as some disappear or become less important, others surge to the fore – for example, players are now changing clubs more often than before, & they are foreigners more often than before, too ; it has become the role of some managers / coaches or officials (club president etc.) to embody the club.
So why on earth do people still talk so much about club fielding an all-foreign team? Very simply because for football supporters, as Bromberger in his already-quoted and unparalleled study of football partisanship explains: any way of criticizing opponents must be seized upon by football supporters in order to disqualify their opponents. In other words: football supporters do not care that their team fields only foreign players; the same football supporters are very keen on criticising opponents for fielding foreign players…
Understand this, & you understand a lot about xenophobia & racism in football & how to address the issue!