French president Nicolas Sarkozy
In France, trying to separate football from politics is a little like trying to separate the Brazilian national team from the color yellow; the two are synonymous in world soccer. As the New York Times reported following France's winless group stage exit from South Africa 2010, everyone from low-level politicians to well-known philosophers to right-wing demagogues have chimed in on what the "meaning" is behind a bunch of French stars playing like numpties because they despise their inept manager.
The problem is FIFA always has maintained that national football associations — in this case, the French Football Federation (FFF) — should be solely responsible for soccer and free from political interference. It seems the resignation of FFF president, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, described as "unavoidable" by the French sports minister, was for FIFA president Sepp Blatter the final straw. As Blatter told reporters:
"In France they have made an 'affaire d'Etat' with football, but football remains in the hands of the federation. French football can rely on FIFA in case of political interference even if it is at presidential level, it is a clear message. We will help the national association and if it cannot be solved by consultation then the only thing we have is to suspend the federation."
Blatter certainly has his work cut out for him. Sarkozy already has personally involved himself in what many describe as a "moral crisis" in France, speaking with Thierry Henry immediately following the French icon's return from South Africa. Others have tried to use the team as a symbol of French social disunity arising from the "banlieus," inner-city neighbourhoods populated by French-speaking immigrants which were the scene of intense anti-police rioting in recent years.
All this further underlines that in France, as in many European nations, football is literally a "political football." Sarkozy and others are in part just trying to score some political points by playing up to disappointed French fans of all political stripes. If a French politician can connect themselves to a perceived improvement in the national football set-up, they can fall back on it in election time. As far as being banned from FIFA is concerned, the best that France can do is at least try and create the appearance that French football is unmolested by politics, but that won't make football any less political.
Photo Credit: Associated Press