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The joyful, fleeting glimpse of a nation as it could and should be has left a deep imprint in the national psyche.

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A Brazil soccer fan celebrates his team's victory. Port-au-Prince, Haiti, June 26, 2002. Daniel Morel

The Ebony Englishman and the Colored Gaul

by Ana Simo

JUNE 27, 2002. Four years ago, France won the World Cup with a brilliant team that embodied a new, multiracial way of being utterly French, a joyful "métissage" of the national identity that was the exact opposite of the vastly overrated U.S.-style multiculturalism, with its dour, painting-by-numbers pieties and paranoid tribal hostilities.

French men of Arab and African descent suddenly ceased to be the immigrant "other" and became French, period. And, overwhelmingly, white French people saw themselves, and their nation, reflected in their brown and black faces. Zidane, Thuram, Desailly, Henry, Karembeu were France, as essentially and heroically as De Gaulle returning to a liberated Paris.

Sure, it helped that they were masters of the world. And now, after Le Pen, we know that their new "black, blanc, beur" (black, white, Arab) France was more distant ideal than reality. But the joyful, fleeting glimpse of a nation as it could and should be has left a deep imprint in the national psyche. Flashed in front of 60 million pairs of eyes, and witnessed by the rest of the planet, it cannot be taken back.

It was a pivotal moment for race relations in a country where nationhood is understood strictly in the singular, not the plural, and is practically undistinguishable from the mystique of the strong, unitary republic, as is in most Latin American countries, where the Napoleonic state took root. But you wouldn't have known any of this had you been following the 1998 World Cup in the U.S. Hispanic media or in much of the Latin American media, especially in Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina.

There, the great French mid-fielder Lilian Thuram, was invariably referred to as "el moreno Thuram," which means something like (pardon the tortured syntax) "the colored Thuram." Like "colored," the word "moreno" is a euphemism for the Spanish word "negro" (black), which many consider insulting or, at least, not nice because it accurately names the unmentionable, the shameful: a person's black African ethnicity. Racism, too, can be politically correct.

So, while an ecstatic France celebrated togetherness, a racially tone-deaf Hispanic and Latin American media pushed the otherness, with a vengeance.

Univisión, the giant U.S. Spanish-language TV network, polluted millions of Hispanic households in the U.S. and south of the border with "the colored Thuram" mantra. So did, to name just a few, the New York city daily El Diario/La Prensa, Argentina's La Nación, Mexico's left-leaning La Jornada, Chile's premier sports publication, La Tercera Deportiva, Uruguay's estimable futbol.com web site, and dozens of football webzines — one from Chile called Thuram "the colored Gaul defender."

Even worse: the Paris-based AFP (Agence France Presse), whose sports dispatches in French were impeccably egalitarian, allowed its Spanish-language service to single out black European players with the odious "colored" labeling. This further spread the disease from Toronto to Patagonia, where, overwhelmingly, Spanish-language media relied on AFP World Cup coverage.

Not once did any of these worthies call the French team captain, the blond, ponytailed Emmanuel Petit, or the goalie Fabien Barthez "the white Petit," or "the white Barthez." And, Zidane, born in Marseille of Algerian immigrant parents, was generally spared, too, no doubt due to his light skin and the fact that Arabs are hardly a bleep in Latin America's racist canon, where it's the Negro, the Indian, the Chinese and, here and there, the Jew, who loom large.

The knee-jerk "colored" labeling was by no means restricted to Thuram or France '98. Any black player with a European team is a potential target. Chile's La Tercera Deportiva routinely calls the Amsterdam-born Edgar Davids, "the colored Juventus wing." For Argentina's La Nación, Marcel Desailly, the captain of this year's inglorious France team, who, like Davids, has played in the Italian leagues, is "the colored man from the Milan team." Another France '98 veteran, Christian Karembeu, is perennially pilloried in La Nación and Uruguay's futbol.com as "the colored Karembeu."

An account of a June 2000 Holland-Yugoslavia match in Rotterdam in Mexico's lefty daily, La Jornada, turned Dutch-born Patrick Kluivert into "the lanky, colored man." Two years earlier, La Jornada's special correspondent Marlene Santos had gone out of her way to inform her readers that the main cheerleader at a Brazil '98 World Cup team practice in Paris was "a colored man with dyed-blond hair."

Just try saying out loud "the colored Barry Bonds," or "the lesbian Navratilova," or "the colored Venus Williams," or "the colored Michael Jordan," and you'll see what's going on here.

It's not that a person's race should never be mentioned. There are times when it's pertinent to the story, and times, like these, when it's not. But even when it is, it should never be an adjective glued to the name of the individual, as in "the colored Thuram," because that singles him out as the other, the exception to the rule, the less than universal and, in a subtle, corrosive way, the less than human. And it further exalts white as the rule, the universal, the human. The racial labeling field should also be level: white football players do have a race, after all, and sometimes, as in Brazil's teams, they're as few and far between as black players on Uruguayan teams.

During the current World Cup, the "colored" labeling brigade dropped France, which left early, and fielded a team with so few Caucasians that you'd make a fool of yourself if you singled out a black or brown player. Instead, England and Germany were the foils.

England? Too many black players in the English team to tack "colored" to each one? No problem. With the peculiar genius of Latin Americans for racial hair-splitting, just pick the biggest and blackest of them all to represent El Negro. That's how Liverpool native Emile Heskey became, in Spanish, "The Ebony Englishman" and "The Ebony Giant," courtesy of Univisión — "ebony" and "bronze" being two other favorite euphemisms, in Spanish, for the unmentionable.

Germany, which, like the long-defunct Poland, has only one black player, Gerald Asamoah, provided much comic relief to Univisión's World Cup narrators, Pablo Ramírez and Jesús Bracamontes (El Profe).

During a lull in this week's semi-final against South Korea, which Germany won, Ramírez informed El Profe that Asamoah was "the first colored player ever on the German team." To which El Profe, guffawing, retorted: "It looks totally weird. There's got to be some people there rolling in their graves...!"

Much merryment by both then ensued. With each chuckle, Hitler was reduced to a subliminal punch line, and Asamoah was burdened with freakish color, exiled from the white human race.

For Is Spanish Radio Training Bigots?

For Complete Coverage Race/Class

For Complete Coverage Americas

For Complete Coverage Europe

Related links:

For Blame Club Owners for Europe's Failures, George Vecsey's definitive take on the ethnocentric wailing by some defeated World Cup big boys (New York Times, registration required).

For a look at racism in a hotbed: Italian football clubs, by BBC News.

For Football Against Racism in Europe, with a list of fresh incidents and actions.

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