PARIS — Bordeaux coach Willy Sagnol has apologized for making disparaging comments about African players in football, although he still maintains they were misinterpreted against a backlash of widespread criticism.
Sagnol, capped 58 times by France and a member of the team which lost the 2006 World Cup final, gave a question and answer session Tuesday to readers of Sud Ouest regional newspaper when the subject of African players was raised.
”The advantage of what I would call the typical African player is that he isn’t expensive when you sign him, (he is) a player who is ready for combat, but football isn’t just about that,” Sagnol said.
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Explaining himself, he continued: ”Football is also (about) technique, intelligence. You need a bit of everything. You need Nordics too, Nordics are good.”
Speaking Thursday at a pre-match news conference ahead of Saturday’s game with Lens, Sagnol tried to explain his comments.
”If by my lack of clarity, or my imperfect semantics, I may have shocked, humiliated or hurt people then I am sorry,” Sagnol said. ”The interpretation that these people may have made does not reflect my way of thinking in any way or my humanist convictions.”
However, he said the comments made sense in a sporting context.
”When I spoke about the African (player) who is cheaper and ready for combat, I simply meant to talk about the young African player arriving in Europe with all of his will to win and often to escape from a precarious situation,” Sagnol continued as he read from pre-prepared notes. ”Then, since we were in a debate about football, the intelligence I spoke of was obviously related to tactical intelligence. The forming of young players in Africa, probably because of a lack of financial means, or (lack) of infrastructure, isn’t always as complete as what’s available in Europe.”
Sagnol distanced himself from accusations that his viewpoint was offensive.
”In no way did I mean to talk about an individual’s intelligence in the proper sense of the term. Regarding certain accusations of racism, I’m 37 (and) I’ve spent 32 of them in a football dressing room. I’ve never had a problem with anyone,” the former Bayern Munich player said.
But Lens coach Antoine Kombouare, who was born in New Caledonia, is among those who felt offended by Sagnol.
”Let’s make things clear: this is not a case of him being clumsy. He’s really messed up,” Kombouare said. ”What he said is serious. It’s unacceptable. Explaining that an African player is cheaper … I felt humiliated and hurt.”
The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) strongly condemned Sagnol, as did former Marseille president Pape Diouf, who called for African players to boycott one round of French league games in protest.
French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet, who formerly employed Sagnol as coach of France’s Under-21 side, defended him, while former teammate Lilian Thuram – an active anti-racism campaigner – was more measured.
”I played alongside Willy, he’s somebody I respect. I know him very well,” Thuram told Sud Ouest. ”I don’t think you should put Willy Sagnol on trial, but you should put prejudice on trial. Each one of us harbors some prejudice, which is why people working in football, who have a certain exposure to the media, should be educated on this subject.”
Sagnol’s captain at Bordeaux is Senegal international Lamine Sane, who called Sagnol’s comments ”clumsy” before defending him, as did club president Jean-Louis Triaud.
”He doesn’t have any twisted ideas. He believes in all the black players in the team,” Sane told French radio. ”We believe in him and we hope to go very far with him.”
Bordeaux forward Henri Saivet, who is black, told RMC radio that Sagnol apologized.
”We all now pertinently well that the coach is not a racist,” Saivet said. ”It’s true that, at first, we asked ourselves a few questions. But he explained how it happened. He apologized to the players. That was very important.”