Henry Samuel, Telegraph, November 6, 2014
The coach of Bordeaux football club has denied accusations of racism after sparking an angry row by saying that “typical African” players are “powerful” but lacking “technique, intelligence and discipline”.
Willy Sagnol’s remarks in a regional newspaper drew widespread condemnation and split the football world, prompting the former player on Thursday to apologise for his “imperfect semantics” and say he had been misunderstood.
The row erupted after Mr Sagnol gave an interview in Sud Ouest newspaper in which he said: “The advantage of the typical African player is that he’s not expensive, is generally up for a fight, someone you could qualify as powerful on the pitch. But football isn’t only that … it’s also about technique, intelligence and discipline. You need a bit of everything.”
The comments came three years after former French football coach, Laurent Blanc, was cleared of wrongdoing in the row over claims he wanted to impose secret quotas to limit the number of black and north African-origin players on the national team.
Mr Blanc had reportedly favoured the idea of quotas and made comments about “big, strong, powerful” black players. The transcript showed him favouring players with “our culture, our history”.
Reacting to the fresh controversy, anti-racism groups Licra and SOS Racisme, along with Liliam Thuram–Mr Sagnol’s former team-mate in the French side–slammed the remarks as “prejudice” at best, and “ordinary racism” at worst.
In a tribune in Le Monde newspaper, Pape Diouf, the Senegalese-born former coach of Olympique Marseille, called on all players from Africa or of African origin playing in France to boycott matches for a day to “break this routine (racism)”.
Louis Saha, a former French international striker, said he was “surprised and shocked” by the comment, while the ruling Socialist Party called on the French Football Federation to sanction Mr Sagnol.
But many in the football sphere defended the coach, with Noël Le Graët, FFF president, dismissing the remark as “clumsy”, while his Bordeaux club president, Jean-Louis Triaud, said the row was “totally unjustified”.
“This must stop, really. All those who know Willy Sagnol know that he is anything but racist. The interpretation of his words is totally wrong.”
Senegalese national player and Bordeaux captain, Lamine Sané, also supported his manager, saying : “We know the man and he is someone very good.”
The head of the French foundation for the memorial of black slavery, Karfa Diallo, also leapt to his defence, saying the remarks were “more clumsy than racist”.
“I think above all Willy Sagnol wanted to say that training centres in Africa privilege power, combativeness and individuality over technique and the intelligence of collective play,” he said.
On Thursday, Mr Sagnol called a press conference to say: “If through my lack of clarity and imperfect semantics, I made people feel shocked, humiliated or hurt, I am sorry.”
Insisting the remarks were”purely about sport, and in no way political or societal”, the coach said: “Given that we were talking about football, the intelligence I mentioned was obviously tactical intelligence. In no way was I talking about intelligence in the literal sense of the word, concerning individuals.”
He added: “I’m 37 years old, and have spent 32 of them in football changing rooms. I’ve never had a problem with anyone.”
However, Mr Diouf said he was not satisfied. “It’s very easy to say it was a clumsy remark to save private Sagnol”.
“But Sagnol at root is only one part of a huge machine that rejects, that leaves no place for the many men coming from Africa.”
“We need a proper reform in football, just as we need one for the rest of French society,” he told France Inter.
“What’s happening in football is exactly what we see in French society more and more–this uninhibited way of talking that people are proud of means anything is allowed.”