What We Talk About When We Talk About Marcel Desailly

A post about football and race. This is slightly outside my main areas of academic work, but does intersect to some extent, and although it’s been put together rather on-the-fly I enjoyed writing it, so I think it’s worth posting.

Daniel Sturridge turns out for England.

I’ve recently been involved in a fascinating discussion with my good friend Aveek Bhattacharya, who blogs excellently on a number of things over here. Aveek and I are both avid fans of Liverpool Football Club, with particular admiration for our enigmatic star striker Daniel Sturridge. We’ve previously discussed (and bemoaned) the fact that Sturridge seems regarded by fans of both Liverpool and England with less affection than one might expect in the case of a player of his manifold superlative talents, remarkable goalscoring record despite frequent injuries, and obvious passion for club, country and the game in general. Aveek and I have often remarked on how this may relate to Sturridge’s injury record, to the widely-held suspicion that his medical issues may be to a significant extent psychological as well as physical, and to the fact that whilst Sturridge is evidently an emotive and engaged presence on the field he can appear distinctly withdrawn and impassive in interviews.

Last week, however, Sachin Nakrani published this piece at This Is Anfield, which chimed closely with many of the frustrations Aveek and I have regarding the lack of love for Sturridge, but which also added an essential element that I must confess had been largely absent from our previous discussions of the Sturridge conundrum. Race.

The points Sachin makes, which I won’t repeat at any length here as his whole piece is essential reading, form a convincing case for the impact Sturridge’s blackness may have made on the way he is regarded by football followers – whether consciously or otherwise. Indeed, it is in itself probably quite telling that Aveek and I had, in our previous discussions of Sturridge-appreciation, conspicuously ignored what now seems, in the aftermath of Sachin’s piece, like an enormous, essential, and blindingly obvious factor.

Sachin sensitively and insightfully locates the discourse around Daniel Sturridge and race within the wider historic context of how various other black sportsmen have been viewed by their fellow professionals, fans and media commentators. His provocative and persuasive argument has already been taken up with customary elan by Aveek here.

The thrust of Aveek’s piece, and again a position I agree with, is that despite the reams of paper that have been given over to discussing racism in football, there remains a critical gap in our understanding of how race inflects, at an often unconscious or implicit level, superficially non-racialised discourse around black footballers – even that which is mobilised in praise of black footballers’ qualities. There are enormous questions here about archetype and stereotype, about complex forms of assimilation, acculturation and acceptance, and about the dangerous work that can be done against this backdrop even (perhaps especially) by well-intentioned words.

My contribution to this discussion, which follows here, was initially made as a comment on Aveek’s piece. It doesn’t go very far at all towards answering any of those questions, but it gestures towards some of them by recalling one particular ugly incident in the history of football’s long and tortured relationship with blackness.

Back in April 2004, the former football manager Ron Atkinson resigned/was sacked from his role as an ITV pundit after making racist remarks about the French defender Marcel Desailly while analysing a game in which Desailly had appeared for Chelsea against Monaco. Atkinson called Desailly “a f***ing lazy thick n***er”, assuming that, following the final whistle, his microphone was switched off.

Of course, it wasn’t.

Marcel Desailly in Chelsea colours.

When reading Aveek’s response to Sachin’s piece I immediately recalled the Atkinson incident simply as a particularly egregious example of the kind of racial-athletic stereotypes proposed by Sachin and Aveek as being pertinent to the way in which someone like Daniel Sturridge is regarded by fans and pundits. When I looked back at Atkinson’s actual words, however, I began to feel that his infamous comment might actually intervene rather more significantly in this conversation.

Atkinson’s slur against Desailly is instructive in this debate, I think, because such an extreme choice of words illuminates how clear and politically-charged the link is between the stereotypes attached specifically to black athletes (even those that are invoked in a way that’s supposedly positive) and stock racial stereotypes historically attached to black people in general.

Atkinson’s line is significant because it is simultaneously one of the stereotypes attached to black footballers (a suggestion of fecklessness and a lack of footballing intelligence), and one of the even less nuanced, more explicitly political racist stereotypes historically attached to black people in general (stupid, indolent – and by extension bestial or subhuman, supposedly justifying exploitation and bondage, and so on and so forth).

In essence, then, Atkinson’s description makes uncomfortably explicit the cultural lineage and nasty subtext that is always just beneath the surface in our relentless emphasis on physical/athletic qualities in our discussions of black footballers – even when praising them, as in the deeply problematic supposed ‘compliment’ “he’s a beast”, as raised by Sachin.

In this way Atkinson demonstrated that slippage between our go-to descriptors for black athletes (even those that are spun insidiously into purportedly complementary inflections) and much older, cruder, more generalised and explicitly politicised modes of racist caricature is not merely dangerously easy but in fact inevitable. Atkinson’s comment transparently reveals the former descriptive mode to be merely a specialised form of the latter rather than something that can ever be in any way distinct – and thus illustrates why the former can never truly be deployed ‘positively’.

So Atkinson’s words were so difficult for the football world to handle, I’d say, not because they were racist per se. Rather it was because they raised such awkward questions about the inextricable relationship and deeply worrying proximity of the vocabulary and imagery we use to praise black athletes (when we enjoy their ‘labour’), to the vocabulary and imagery that Anglo-European society has historically used to oppress black people and co-opt black bodies (and labour) for white benefit.

That sense is heightened further by the fact that Atkinson didn’t just call Desailly “a f***ing lazy thick n***er”. In full, he said: “He’s what is known in some schools as a f***ing lazy thick n***er”.

The “some schools” preface to the description of Desailly doesn’t diminish Atkinson’s association with the slur, far from it. What it does, crucially, is reveal an instance of racism in the act of consciously admitting itself to be participating in an historical framework of tropes or stereotypes. That is to say, this is self-aware racism – racism which knows that it’s racist, and which deems itself validated rather than undermined by that fact.

Atkinson is pointing out that he doesn’t just think Desailly is a “lazy thick n***r” independently and of his own volition, rather he vouchsafes his statement and belief to be explicitly aligned with a pre-existing culture of stereotype that authenticates his opinion by giving it precedent.

What that points to, I think, when examined alongside the slur itself, is that not only is there a deep and uncomfortable connection between the language of historic racial oppression of black people and the language we use in reference to black footballers, but that the latter, even when employed to give praise and compliment, actively derives its authority from the inheritance of the former. To put it more radically, the latter actually participates in the perpetuation and sustenance of the former.

The language of racial abuse and oppression is the ancestral cultural knowledge-base, the folk memory if you will, that informs and validates even the ‘positive’ traits commonly associated with black footballers. It’s not just an unfortunate fact that the language of slavery and racial Darwinism lives on in our contemporary sporting discourse: far worse, our contemporary sporting discourse stands upon and can directly trace some of its beliefs to those vile concepts. Perhaps that’s why we’re often so reluctant to confront and pick apart those beliefs, as Sachin and Aveek have been attempting to – an effort to which I am pleased to add my own very minor contribution.

Because it’s not as if anybody actually acknowledged or answered these questions when Ron Atkinson left ITV under a cloud back in 2004. It was much easier to tut disapprovingly about Big Ron, the embarrassing old cartoon racist, as an anachronistic anomaly, i.e. a figure unacceptable because he was out of step with modern football culture, as opposed to a figure unacceptable because of the troubling possibility that perhaps he wasn’t. This was easier than to face the notion that all Atkinson did was externalise and make conscious things that modern football culture internalises and determinedly keeps unconscious, but which it certainly hasn’t transcended or addressed.

Marcel Desailly won 116 caps for France, a World Cup and a European Championship, as well as two Champions Leagues and a host of other domestic and personal honours.

Daniel Sturridge is the most talented centre-forward ever to have played for England. We are all incredibly lucky to live on the same planet as him.

It’s Daniel Sturridge’s world; we just live in it.