Last week, before a rugby test match between France and Australia in Marseille, as the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” began playing, Kinshasa-born rugby player Yannick Nyanga began sobbing uncontrollably. It went viral. Nyanga then helped his team to demolish Australia’s, with France winning 33-6, a victory soon forgotten as the post-match media attention focused on his pre-match emotions.
For Nyanga it was simple, as he told a reporter from the AFP: he was happy to be back on the French team after a 5-year hiatus, caused by a knee injury and former coach Marc Lièvremont’s decision not to pick him.
Much to Nyanga’s dismay, a lot of the discourse around his public display of emotion has centered not on his return to test rugby or to big French win, but rather what it says about French sportspeople and patriotism. In this, Nyanga’s actions were contrasted with those of France’s national football team.
France’s football team has been shamed as arrogant, overpaid athletes, most especially for their showing, or lack thereof, in the 2010 South Africa World Cup. Most of the football team was black and as some, like Laurent Dubois, have shown—summarizing debates in France for an English audience—that’s not irrelevant in French sports and media politics (see also the “too many blacks and Arabs” scandal).
Nyanga was not oblivious to what he had wrought. He told AFP: “My tears really created a buzz (on social media as well as the regular media) despite myself.”
An example of how Nyanga’s actions were jettisoned for French nationalist politics (which pretends race and class inequalities don’t exist), check Philippe David’s post on the French blog Atlantico: “He’ll be 29 next month, and his skin may be black but for him, hearing “Let us come, patriotic children” [words from the anthem] and wearing a jersey with the symbol of the cock on the sleeve, brought him to tears … we are reminded that being French is not about a skin color nor a religion.”
Underneath the YoutTube video of Nyanga’s now famous tears, the most popular comments underscored French pride even further: “Now THAT’S France! Not like those lousy footballers.” Or, “Maybe the TEAM OF FRANCE should take notes from our magnificient XV!”
Twitter had its turn too. A few users compared Nyanga to Obama: “Yannick Nyanga > Barack Obama.” Basically, Nyanga is bigger than Obama. It is unclear what Obama did to deserve this comparison. Another tweeted, “Yannick Nyanga’s tears are unforgettable.”
One particularly right-swinging Française blogged about “the tears of Yannick Nyanga, our brother”, while simultaneously strongly endorsing the French film Case Départ. (The latter is perhaps a first of its kind, a comedy about two modern-day Black half-brothers who are magically transported to the time of slavery in the French West Indies. It has been a highly controversial film, with many arguing that making light of the history behind French enslavement is unacceptable in a country like France, where many Black people are subject to racialized treatment, and occupy menial positions.)
Nyanga, however, wasn’t particularly feeling the debate between rugby players and footballers:
It serves no purpose to stir up these debates, it is ridiculous. It is pointless to make such comparisons, to be divisive. [The tears] were a personal reaction. I had worked really hard for something that I was desperate to have: to wear the French shirt.
Whatever Nyanga may have thought, football players (and supporters) did not notice nor care for his touching moment. Julien M tweeted: “’Ribéry: Hey Karim, did you see Nyanga crying during the anthem? Benzema: Yea! I laughed too hard!’ Tonight, it’s football!”