Yesterday, while speaking with French news outlet Sud Ouest (in French, above), Bordeaux manager Willy Sagnol voiced his frustrations over the possibility of losing players to the 2015 African Cup of Nations. In the process, he made himself sound like nothing short of a plantation owner, irate that one of his workers would dare ask for time off.
We are undoubtedly living in a era of heightened racial tension. There’s a strong feeling that much of the progress that has been made in matters of cultural awareness has been lost. Basic human respect and tolerance — a funny word to use in the context of people simply being who they are born to be — is giving way to a new wave of aggressive bigotry. Willful ignorance and, worse, opportunistic lies about people of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities seem to be back in style. Deliberately divisive rhetoric, designed to thrust the world back into a time when the idea of different communities living together and embracing each other was unacceptable and actively prevented, now passes for campaign speeches. More frequently, people of color read the news and can’t help but feel “they’re coming for us” in the pit of their stomachs. It’s become OK to be vile in the name of “just being honest,” no matter how wrong, uninformed, or deceitful the speaker may be.
There’s always a push-back to this. Those who don’t personally feel the change in the air become dismissive. To them, minorities are too sensitive. They over-exaggerate and pass the blame. They rely on any number of the same tired flash cards people in power are so quick to pull out when those under their rule won’t simply accept what they’ve heard.
Then someone as flagrantly ignorant as Willy Sagnol opens his mouth and proves again that there are still individuals who see entire other groups as inferior, as something less than human, as objects given to them to reach their personal goals. These groups are a means to an end that can, should, and will be discarded and replaced when their inconvenience outweighs their production.
That’s exactly how Sagnol sees African players: commodities to buy and sell, like livestock. Cheap. Strong. Not too smart, but willing to fight for him once he shows them the right way. Flawed, but cost effective tools. Nothing more.
The problem for Sagnol is that his cattle seem to have ideas of their own. Some of them have gotten the high idea of wanting to step off the ranch. This isn’t a case of reading deeper into Sagnol’s words. His bullshit is right on the surface.
He’s very comfortable in his opinion. He states it like fact, as if he would be surprised and question your judgement if you were to disagree. He’s supremely arrogant in his ignorance, and few personality traits form a more dangerous combination.
It’s not hard to point out the contradiction in the fact that African players are often so “cheap,” yet they’re good enough and valuable enough to their clubs that Europeans are constantly crying into cameras when they’re not available.
Yes, from a sporting perspective, the African Cup of Nations can be greatly problematic to managers, especially in France, which has a significant population of players from the continent. A major international tournament in the middle of a league season isn’t optimal for anyone. Coaches, players, and tournament organizers alike all have to make inconvenient compromises. And there’s nothing wrong with coaches and managers voicing their frustrations about losing players. After all, they were signed for a reason.
What isn’t fair is that African players and the Confederation of African Football are repeatedly being forced to justify the tournament’s existence, an all too common theme in the black experience. To be black is to constantly be asked to explain why you matter, to feel obligated to validate to others why who you are and what matters to you should be treated with the same respect as anything else.
Too often, coaches speak on African players and the Nations Cup like Sagnol did. Dismissive of the tournament’s merits, suddenly unaware of the concept of patriotism, all because they feel their burden is more important than the ambitions of an entire continent.
Whether it’s a private thought, or a moronic, hateful public statement like Sagnol’s, authority figures in European soccer continue to prove that in the grand scheme, they view Africa as nothing more than a place to do some discount shopping, and its players as malleable, dispensable equipment that only hold value on their terms.