Diagne and the racial politics of Les Bleus

Juliet Jacques explores the footballing interchange between Senegal and its former colonial masters through two influential figures.

A defining image of the 2002 World Cup was that of Patrick Vieira stood despondent after France’s loss to Senegal in the opening game. The first time in the tournament’s history that an African team had beaten its former colonial rulers, the defeat was particularly bitter for Vieira, born in Senegalese capital Dakar and raised in France. Four years earlier, Vieira had helped his adopted country become world champions for the first time, setting up Arsenal team-mate Emmanuel Petit’s goal in the last minute of the Final.

Besides Vieira, the victorious Black, Blanc, Beur (black, white, Arab) squad included foreign-born Marcel Desailly (Ghana), Lilian Thuram (Guadeloupe) and Christian Karembeu (New Caledonia) as well as stars born in France with parents from its overseas territories and former colonies, notably Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Bernard Lama. Libertarians used their triumph, sealed in Paris, to counter Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s assertion that immigrants of any generation should never be considered French, let alone appear for the national side. But it was not the first time that France had hosted a World Cup complicated by racial politics: nor the first time that their side featured a player with a strong Senegalese identity.

The first black player to represent France was Raoul Diagne, who later became known as “the grandfather of Senegalese football”. Like Vieira, Raoul was a tough midfielder, nominally defensive but energetically supporting the attack, qualities which led him to make his Bleus debut in 1931. Diagne’s creed was constantly noted: he became known as L’Araignée noir (The Black Spider) for his long legs, stamina and fierce tackles.

Like Vieira, Raoul was born outside France. Vieira’s family moved to Dreux in the north-west, shortly after the Front National won control of the city council in its first electoral breakthrough in 1983. Raoul was born in French Guiana in November 1910, where his father Blaise met his mother whilst working for the French customs service, and raised in France after Blaise became the first black African to be voted onto the National Assembly.

Men in Senegal’s four main cities (quatre communes), including Dakar and Blaise Diagne’s home city of Gorée, had been allowed to vote for French National Assembly representatives since the nineteenth century, unlike most other Empire citizens. Blaise told black Africans fearful of the consequences of colonial expansion in West Africa that ‘We are [French] and we have the same rights!’ Insistent that he could represent French people of any creed, Blaise astounded the Third Republic establishment by winning the election to represent Senegal, moving to Paris in 1914.

Blaise supported the recruitment of West African troops during World War I, convinced that wartime service could win future concessions from the French government. The Loi ‘Blaise Diagne’ of 1916 granted full citizenship to quatre communes residents, enabling the French Army to call up thousands of black Africans to the Western Front. As Blaise predicted, they retained the right to live and work in France after hostilities ceased, although his involvement with French Parliament led black activist W.E.B. DuBois to label him “a Frenchman who is accidentally black”.

In 1920, Blaise combined his French parliamentary work with the role of Mayor of Dakar, his political career allowing his son to attend a prestigious lycée with a view to entering the civil service. Raoul joined Racing Club de France in Paris as an amateur whilst studying, soon breaking into the first team. Aged just twenty, he made his France debut in a friendly against Czechoslovakia, losing 2-1. A year later, professionalism was legalised, and a national championship established: as one of France’s brightest young talents, Raoul decided to make his living in football. Although Blaise publicly disapproved of his son’s occupation, Raoul defended it as the equal of a career in politics – aware that the openings for West African elites to become involved in French public life had made possible his international call-up.

After scoring their first-ever League goals, Raoul helped Racing to their only championship in 1936. Remarkably, he played half the season in goal after their regular custodian, Austrian international Rudi Hiden, abruptly quit after being refused a pay rise. When Hiden returned, Raoul was restored to his half-back position, as Racing also won the Coupe de France.

In 1938, France staged the World Cup for the first time. Manager Gaston Barreau’s squad included many foreign-born players, some of whom sought citizenship to escape Fascist persecution. Sadly, Blaise did not live to take a seat in Édouard Daladier’s Front populaire alliance of radical, Socialist and Communist politicians, or to see his son represent France alongside Austrian-born half-back Gusti Jordan, whose hotly contested decision to assume French nationality led to his imprisonment by the Wehrmacht.

Barreau also included several Algerian-born players, such as Jean Bastien and Abdelkader Ben Bouali, as well as German-born Oscar Heisserer and Ignace Kowalczyk, of Polish descent. After beating Belgium in the first round, France faced holders and fierce rivals Italy in Paris in the quarter-finals. With both teams normally wearing blue and white, Italy provocatively opted to play in black shirts. Unlike in 1998, when they also met in the last eight, Italy triumphed, winning 3-1 with two second-half goals from Silvio Piola. They went on to lift the World Cup at the Stade Olympique de Colombes: although Germany had suffered a shock defeat to Switzerland in a first round replay, the far Right proved victorious.

Raoul won the last of his 18 France caps against Portugal on 28 January 1940, soon before his final game for Racing, in which they retained the Coupe de France, five days before the Nazi occupation. He joined Toulouse during the war, retiring in 1946 after two years with FC Annecy. After coaching in Belgium, Algeria and French West Africa, Raoul became manager of Senegal when it became independent in August 1960. He managed the national team for just a year, but as Senegal’s most famous footballer, his presence was crucial in establishing the nation’s football culture. Two years after he left, his 1938 World Cup colleague Jules Vandooren coached Senegal to a symbolic win over a French team in the Goodwill Games.

Raoul Diagne lived to see both France’s World Cup triumph and Senegal’s shock win over the holders four years later, dying in Créteil in November 2002, aged 92. All but two of the African nation’s squad were born in Senegal, with Habib Beye and Sylvain N’diaye born in Paris; all their outfield players and their first-choice goalkeeper were signed to clubs in France. A year later, Patrick Vieira returned to Senegal for the first time, co-founding the Diambars Academy for African children, with help from Bernard Lama and others. Using passion for football as a driving force for education, the Academy has since graduated over a hundred teenagers. Whatever their contribution to public life in Senegal, France or elsewhere, it will owe much not just to Vieira, but also to the Diagne family who came before him.

Juliet writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper in the UK and can be found here and on Twitter @JulietJacques