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Could France’s Islamophobia Actually Be a Good Thing For Arab Football?

when one’s loss is another's win

We’re all used to seeing France make headlines, obviously not for the right reasons, regarding its contested relationship with Islam, practicing Muslims, and even non-observing believers. For centuries, the country nestled in the middle of the so-called world’s oldest continent has practically become known for its hyper-politicized and aggressive stances when dealing with the world’s most embraced and followed faith. From colonial times to today, the nation’s most notoriously infamous narrative feels like it has barely nudged an inch as it still actively institutionalizes sectarian and dismissive measures that repeatedly target involved communities from inside and outside of its territorial borders. It seems like 2023 is bound to be no different from previous years as a recent statement, shared by the French Football Federation (FFF), collectively made our eyes roll. 

Here’s why:  A few days ago, France’s highest institution dedicated to regulating professional football made its instructions loud and clear as to how it would accommodate players who need to break their fast mid-games— They won’t.  

Shortly after their across-the-channel counterparts Chelsea FC hosted an open-iftar initiative, French referees were briefed to not halt nor temporarily pause games when it is time for a handful of on-field players to mark the end of their day of abstinence from food and water, despite it taking only seconds to quickly sip water and bite into an energizing small snack before jumping back into the fixture. Fearing that it would somehow impact the integrity of the league rather than show respect, empathy, and understanding to an entire segment of society, the news caused a lot of commotion in France and abroad, attracting all sorts of hot takes that mostly point towards the French’s newest translation of its deep-rooted xenophobia. The least we can say is that for once, they are quite straightforward with it.

For more context, referees were reportedly reminded of the ban through an email sent by the Federal Commission of Referees (CFA), which explicitly stated that “these interruptions do not respect the provisions of the statutes of the FFF,” noting that disciplinary actions would be taken in situations where these measures were not abided by. Despite the backlash, from all sides of the spectrum, some coaches proved to be in favor of the move, and all the more severe in its practice, with a slew of players being dropped from their squad for refusing to break their fast on matchdays as it was the case for Algerian footballer and Nantes FC defender Jaouen Hadjam over the weekend. 

Furthermore, in an article published on March 23,  French sports daily L’Equipe revealed that according to their sources, the France coaching staff advised their Muslim players to postpone their fast during their call up to not affect their performances, although the proposal was kept at a suggestion level rather than a mandatory rule — a version of events that was challenged by investigative journalist Romain Molina.

According to him, there is a genuine witch-hunt going on in youth squads. Molina revealed that “in the U16 and U19 age groups, (officials) were after the players fasting during Ramadan, with pre-emptive calls made before call ups to ensure that they weren’t.” He also alleged that “several players were also considering stopping playing for France as a result” hinting towards the idea that some of the region’s nations could see a few up-and-coming players join their ranks in times to come, notably Algeria. 

As football teams from our neck of the woods continue to impress on the world’s most-esteemed stages— as Morocco did during the 2022 FIFA World Cup and Algeria in the 2014 edition— a noticeable shift is underway in the attitude of players when it comes to choosing between their dual nationalities. 

Historically, opting to represent a Middle Eastern or North African side was not a viable choice for players who coveted a regular starting position in a European squad, only pledging in favor of their motherlands upon the realization that they’ll probably spend a career on the bench with France, Spain, Italy, you name it, rather than on the pitch with Morocco, Algeria, or Egypt, for example. 

In the past decade though, players such as Riyad Mahrez, Hakim Ziyech, and Achraf Hakimi unapologetically pledged their allegiance to their countries of origin, despite them indeed being able to make the cut with a top 10 FIFA ranked squad, igniting a growing trend where even some of the Arab World’s football federations are less eager to call up players who are still weighing their options with others. Fans, too, are also fed up with being viewed as a secondary option, deeming the period of doubt as a lack of respect for their country. 

With more and more examples of African and Asian teams going further than ever in tournaments they got too used to being eliminated from in the earliest of stages,  a growing number of athletes are now considering writing history for the first time with their ancestor’s countries rather than add themselves to a long list of already established nations. Whether Molina’s prediction will prove to be correct or not, it’s true that the above ban only seems to further open the doors for players to rethink their choices and explore other paths, especially when they involve France, which has made its history of anti-Islam an almost integral part of its DNA. 

Indeed, the future of Arab football looks brighter than ever, with players motivated by more than just a desire for playing time or status. Though some may argue that choosing a team as a result of Islamophobia is still not good enough when compared to picking a side out of genuine love, it’s essential to acknowledge that this is just the tip of a much larger iceberg. It is an additional motivator that points towards a direction they’ve already consciously, or unconsciously, been considering. This trend highlights the larger problem of discrimination and prejudice that still exists in sports and signals a new era in regional football, characterized by a newfound pride and passion for representing one’s country, and we’re all here for it.

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