French Federation begins inquiry into racism row over quotas

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The Independent Football

The French Football Federation has begun an inquiry into claims that national coach Laurent Blanc and other coaches secretly agreed to restrict the number of black and Arab players in national training programs.

Investigative website Mediapart published explosive claims last week that the FFF proposed to limit to 30 percent the number of players of African and North African descent in training academies from the age of 13.

FFF technical director Francois Blaquart was suspended pending the result of the inquiry, which included a transcript of a conversation involving Blanc, Blaquart, under-21 coach Erick Mombaerts and under-20 coach Francis Smerecki in November.

In the transcript, an outraged Smerecki is quoted as speaking out angrily against the proposal, calling it a "discriminatory" idea that should never see the light of day. He has not yet commented on Mediapart's article.

The focus of the conversation was to find a way to limit the number of players with dual nationalities coming through the French youth teams before then deciding to play for their country of origin as adults.

All four of them will be interviewed this week by a special commission headed by Patrick Braouezec, who led the probe into the France team's strike at last year's World Cup. Laurent Davenas, the president of the FFF's ethics council, and a member of the French sports ministry will also be involved in the inquiry.

Blanc, on holiday in Italy, will be interviewed on either Friday or Saturday, Davenas said.

The quotas row came just as Blanc was beginning to turn the team's fortunes following the World Cup debacle, where — under former coach Raymond Domenech — the squad went on strike in protest at Nicolas Anelka's exclusion and was eliminated in the group stage without winning a match.

French sports minister Chantal Jouanno urgently requested an FFF inquiry, and set a deadline by the end of this week.

The conclusions will then be discussed further at an FFF federal council meeting next week, the federation said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that it would make no further comment until then.

Andre Merelle, a former boss of France's national training center at Clairefontaine until being released by Blaquart in September, felt there was a problem with the perception of dual nationals within French football's hierarchy.

"During my time we were already reproached for taking so many blacks and Arabs," Merelle told Mediapart. "The argument that I was given was, 'We pay them, we bring them up, and then they go and play abroad (for another country)."'

Merelle said he felt very uneasy with some of the things he heard at Clairefontaine.

"If you listened to them it was like we were favoring the blacks and the Arabs," he said. "But the place of blacks and Arabs can be explained historically. Football is a working-class game: At one stage we had the Poles, the Italians.

"Regrets were expressed: 'There's a lot of blacks again this year. I was never explicitly told there are too many (of them) but what conclusion should I have drawn?"

France great Lilian Thuram, Blanc's teammate when France won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship, said he was shocked when he heard about possible race quotas. Former France defenders Basile Boli and Luc Sonor and former France goalkeeper Bernard Lama also expressed their outrage in recent days.

"Francois Blaquart deserves to resign," Sonor told Mediapart. "If France had played well at the World Cup, this would never have been spoken about. When things are going well, we (the blacks and the Arabs) are the best. When things go wrong, we're the scapegoats."

Others, like France midfielder Alou Diarra and striker Karim Benzema have publicly backed Blanc, although both said they were upset at the very thought of quotas.

Diarra, a France captain under Blanc, said late Monday on RMC radio that he hoped Blanc did not resign over the affair.

But Boli, who played 45 times for France, distanced himself from his former teammate Blanc.

"To have taken part in a meeting to talk about quotas is a scandal. That means it's been thought about," Boli told RMC. "I can't support anyone. On that (issue), it's impossible. I was of Ivory Coast origin, I chose the France team."

Merelle says the dual nationality argument is easily settled.

"Those who go and play for their countries of origin (do so) because they have scant chance of being picked for France," he said. "We've also profited from this dual nationality issue. We've taken dual nationals who opted to play for France, like David Trezeguet. As for Gonzalo Higuain, we would have liked to."