[Viewpoint] Vive la difference!

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[Viewpoint] Vive la difference!

The French football team suffered the disgrace of being eliminated in the group round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, although it is not the first time that the team has struggled. It also failed to advance further in the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. Considering that the French national squad has been both champions and runners-up before, its track record certainly has had its ups and downs. But such inconsistency is every bit “French.” After all, soccer is just a game.

Regardless of its performance, the French team successfully left a deep impression in South Africa: It showed what a mess its program is in. One player challenged the head coach, only to be swiftly sent home. His teammates objected to the decision and refused to train. Adding insult to injury, after losing the next game, the head coach refused a handshake from the coach of the opposing team - which just happened to be the World Cup hosts, South Africa. The French team’s internal strife became the biggest joke of the 2010 World Cup, and had the team proceeded to the elimination rounds, it would have been the Cup’s greatest mystery.

Having star players does not necessarily translate into excellence. The French squad boasted many outstanding athletes who are paid millions of dollars a year. Seven of them, including team captain Patrice Evra, play in the Premier League of England. Nevertheless, the French team failed to advance, as less heralded Uruguay and Mexico moved on instead. In the three games of the group round, France scored only one goal total.

We cannot discuss the French team’s victory in the 1998 World Cup (held in France) without mentioning head coach Aime Jacquet. He selected his players based strictly on teamwork. Instead of favoring, say, a footballer who excelled at scoring goals all by himself, Jacquet preferred players who were able to give critical assists to their teammates.

The French media went wild when Jacquet excluded Eric Cantona, who was then France’s star player, from the national squad, but Jacquet didn’t blink. Despite the criticism and attacks from the media, the coach stuck to his principles.

His strategy led to the birth of another star named Zinedine Zidane, who was the player most faithful to Jacquet’s team-first philosophy. Jacquet chose devotion over glitter. He built the team around Zidane, making all 11 players take part in both defense and offense. In the World Cup final, France played against Brazil, which depended heavily upon a few star players, and France defeated the South American powerhouse three to zero.

In July 1998, Paris was filled with excitement, passion and joy. The day that France won its first World Cup, one million Parisians flooded into the streets. The Champs-Elysees was packed with people shouting, “Allez la France,” and cars honked with deafening approval.

The joy transcended class, age, gender, race, politics and religion, as all of France was one. With a team made up of white, black and Middle Eastern players, the “United Colors of France” was praised for displaying the power of diversity.

The French team of 2010 was just as diverse, but its results were disappointing. So what explains the lackluster performance this time around? Some have questioned the patriotism of players of Arab and African descent, some of whom did not even know the lyrics to “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.

Others blamed the poor performance on a lack of traditional French values. Le Monde pointed out that the French World Cup squad was a mirror image of French society, revealing underlying social problems such as egocentrism, materialism and division.

Diversity can be a source of power, but it is hardly guaranteed. It is powerful only when its various components are held together by tolerance. Just as cement solidifies when mixed with water, a diverse group can be strong when different characteristics and opinions are blended together and mutually respected.

Without tolerance, however, diversity is just a collection of disparate grains of sand. In this sense, the fall of the French team reflects the failure of French society to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In June 2005, as disgruntled youth started riots in the slums outside Paris, French society suffered greatly from civil unrest throughout the summer. The rioters, mostly children of immigrants, demanded an end to discrimination and challenged the French public authorities with violence. Cars were burned and shop windows destroyed. Then Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy called the rioters “hoodlums” and declared “zero tolerance.” He said he would “clean out the city with a Karcher,” a high pressure cleaning machine. The unrest was controlled, but France is still suffering from the after-effects. As class discord and confrontation aggravate social polarization, society is growing harsher. The virtues of tolerance and respect have also greatly weakened.

France is likewise growing less tolerant toward freedom of speech. Comedians who described Sarkozy as an incarnation of power surrounded by flatterers have lost their positions at broadcasting stations. A citizen who made insulting remarks about the president has been put on trial. French media critical of Sarkozy has led to lawsuits. Under the justification of reestablishing law and order, tolerance, the symbol of France, is dying.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This remark, usually attributed to French enlightenment writer Voltaire, is the essence of French values. It has been a source of power for the republic.

When you tolerate the voices of the few and save them from persecution, diversity can be powerful. When anyone can speak his opinion without fear, diversity can be a force for social development. In the end, leadership is the crucial element. Depending on which coach leads the team, its performance in the World Cup can vary drastically. We all need a great leader to succeed.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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