He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Soccer Empire:Learn more about Soccer Empire at the University of California Press website and the Soccer Politics blog.“Hey, Desailly, do you know that little kids are dying in your country?” So Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoïchkov taunted French defender Marcel Desailly during a key game of the 1996 European Cup. Then he added: “Shitty country, shitty blacks, shitty skin.” Desailly kept his cool, and didn’t take the bait. After France won the game, though, he publicly denounced Stoïchkov. Later, though Desailly actually thanked the Bulgarian. From that day on, Desailly recalled, when he wore his French jersey on the field, he felt “at once French and African” and “proud of my two countries, black and white.”I describe the incident between Desailly and Stoïchkov on p. 99 of my book Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France. It turns out the page is a pretty good mark for the book. Desailly was born in Ghana but was adopted by a French man who married his mother when he was young, and grew up in a comfortable and mostly white neighborhood in Bordeaux. As a young man he was invited to go to a football academy run by the local team, the Girondins de Bordeaux, where he completed high school and began a career as a professional athlete. Recruited to the French national team, he was one of the key players at the European Cup in 1996 and, more importantly, during the 1998 World Cup in France. In that year, France won the World Cup for the first time in its history with a team that was celebrated for its diversity.
To understand the meaning of that victory, though, you need to understand what happened in 1996. For in that year, while Stoïchkov attacked Desailly on the field, the French far-right political leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, attacked the team as a whole calling them “foreigners” and “fake Frenchmen.” In response, players, fans, and politicians responded passionately, claiming that in fact the French team, in all its diversity, better represented France than Le Pen’s outdated and xenophobic vision did. The story of how that happened, and of the broader and contradictory ways in which politics and football shape one another, is at the center of Soccer Empire. On the turf, it shows, racism has found itself both articulated and powerfully challenged.