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Black, White and Les Bleus


Black, White and Les Bleus

Chet Anekwe

I remember it like it was yesterday..  July 8th 1982.  The first time I had ever watched a World Cup game

It was the semi-final between France and West Germany.  A blistering match of soccer world super powers, filled with all time great players.  It has since been recognized as one of the great games in the history of the World Cup.  And I watched it live.  All of it.

I sat in my Mom’s house glued to my chair.  Alone, with everyone sleeping, I watched this historic match in the most unusual of places.  The city of Bauchi, in the northeast portion of northern Nigeria, over 730 miles from the then capital, Lagos.

My mother was working as a senior producer for the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), in this relatively young, recently created state, Bauchi, named after the city itself. She was literally the first person to move into the estate where the house was located.  The development was so new, there was no electricity when her and my brothers first moved in.  My brothers said they would sit on the front stoop everyday and watch as they slowly erected the electric poles.  Bit by bit, inching closer and closer, until they finally were able to connect our house to the main grid, over three weeks later.   However, as was normal for Nigeria at that time (and sadly till this day), electricity was not constant.  It was rare to have “light” for more than 4-5 hours a day.  One had to get used to long periods of no power at any time of the day, or night.  It was routine to go to bed in darkness and wake up realizing the only light available, was from the sun.

Here I was, just back from the States, some months earlier, still trying to adjust from the culture shock.  There was only one TV channel, NTA Bauchi, and it started at 4pm everyday.  The station usually went off the air around 12 midnight depending on what movie or show was shown.  They would show old American or British movies, or TV shows, around 10pm and close the station at the end.  It was strange to watch, but my USA withdrawal would be marginally placated with watching this, most times, terrible programing.  A NTA Bauchi staple, was an old American show called, C.H.I.P.S, with Erik Estrada.  I hated CHIPS when I was in the States, so I refused to watch it in Bauchi.  If they were showing CHIPS, I would go to bed, not minding at all if they took light…  My America withdrawal be damned…

But something was different that day.  There was uninterrupted light from around 6pm. And instead of seeing CHIPS, there was this “football” game on.  This historic World Cup semi-final.  I watched with rapt attention, living and dying with every pass, every shot, every goal.  It ended in regulation and extra time at 3-3 and went to penalties, where West Germany prevailed and moved on to the finals.  

I was totally bummed…  I was rooting hard for France… 

At the time, the only world sporting events ever shown in the States were the Olympics. So it was the first time I have ever rooted for a non-American team in a sport.  And I didn’t watch passively, I actively rooted from France!  But why?  I wasn’t French and, at the time, had never been to France.  But I felt a connection with that team.  I saw myself in them… I realized midway through the game, I was rooting for France for one simple reason.

France had black players on the team.

Jean Tigana

Jean Tigana

That was it.  This was a time when neither the US, and only one sub-saharan African country, Cameroon, was at the World Cup.  Apart from Brazil, there were very few, if any, black players on any team.  The World Cup was full of European countries and mostly white players.  But here was France, a country that had integrated their team.  I was watching players that looked like me, succeeding on the world stage.  Players like Marius Trésor, Gerard Janvion and Jean Tigana, blazed the pitch and I rooted for France because of them.

As a child living in a post Jackie Robinson world, I watched integrated American sports.  Even then, we were still grossly under represented in many sports.  So when you saw a black person excel, regardless of nationality, or sport, you rooted for them.  You knew they were not only good, but mostly likely the best, to be allowed to compete at the highest level.  And that made you proud.  

I find this is still the case today to some extent, for me, as well as many black people around the world.  Especially in sports were we were historically under represented.  We love Serena and Venus Williams, cheered Tiger Woods, and are awed by Lewis Hamilton, the gifted formula one race car driver.  All, at one time, considered the best in the world, and in the case of Serena and Hamilton, still are.

Times have changed.  We see diversity in almost every corner of the sports world. Sports, the one true meritocracy, unburdening itself of the political and racial shackles that once stunted its growth.  Even so, there are still pockets that surprise me.

I am genuinely surprised at the lack of diversity in the 2015 USA Women’s World Cup Soccer team.  

Countries  like France, England, Brazil and Canada lead the way with highly diverse teams.  (And yes, I root for all those teams), while the USA fields the least diverse team amongst nations with diverse populations like those countries.  Sydney Leroux and Shannon Boxx seem to be the only multiracial players on the US team. 

Sydney Leroux

Sydney Leroux

Now, in the larger scheme of things, especially given the Team's successes, this is not a critical issue that deserves a national debate.  Nor do I feel there is some nefarious causes. However I do wonder where are the young African-America women in the American team.  I know there are social and financial obstacles that push young African-American girls, to basketball, track, and other sports.  However I would have imagined there are many wonderfully gifted African-American young ladies who would be great additions to the team and soccer in American as a whole.  Why are they not filtering to our national team?  Seems strange especially since soccer is the number one sport for young girls in the US.  Whatever the reasons,  I personally would like to see a more diverse team.  

My youngest daughter loves soccer.  And she is good.  Tall, athletic and fast.  She’s 11 now, but could she is playing for Team USA in the 2023 Woman’s World Cup?  From my typing to God’s ears..

- Chet Bashari Anekwe -