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When a Muslim soccer team won't play a gay one

The refusal by Creteil Bebel to play Paris Foot Gay leads to public outcry in France.

Pascal Brethes, co-founder and president of Paris Foot Gay, speaks on the phone during a match in October 2009. His club has been at the center of a media storm that started when a Muslim team, Creteil Bebel, refused to play Paris Foot Gay. (Mildrade Cherfils/GlobalPost)

PARIS, France — On this point both sides agreed: No one expected so much ink to spill in the days after Creteil Bebel, a soccer team made up of mainly Muslim players, refused to play a match against Paris Foot Gay, a club that welcomes homosexual and heterosexual players. 

But after the dispute played out in the press for more than a week, a resolution finally came in the form of a one-line note last week from the sports league governing the amateur teams. Creteil Bebel was ejected from the league, the brief message said, for "refusing the match on discriminatory grounds."

Alan Daligault, a Paris Foot Gay captain, who also holds administrative duties that include checking the team’s messages, was the first to see the email from Creteil Bebel refusing to play.

"I was shocked," the 25-year-old said, at how polite it was. "What shocked most was the tone; it left the impression that it was something quite normal, that our response should have been 'OK, have a nice Sunday; see you later.' "

The widely circulated email said: "Sorry, but in light of the name of your team and in keeping with the principles of our team, which is a team of practicing Muslims, we cannot play against you; our convictions are stronger than a simple game of soccer. Sorry to have informed you so late."

The backlash brought some prickly and sensitive issues to the fore, namely religion and its place in a secular France as well as homophobia in sports and society at large. The media coverage also stirred debate about the merits of fighting for a cause, such as gay rights, versus not making an issue of one's convictions in a country where emphasizing differences is frowned upon. The story also took an ugly turn that both sides said was unfortunate — a slant that seemed to pit Islam against the gay community.

At an Oct. 13 hearing to determine what sanctions the offending team should face, Bencheikh Farid, a Creteil Bebel captain, his voice cracking at times, read from a handwritten statement. The team’s lawyer was present but not allowed to address the 50 or so players and league officials.

After spouting off a few lines in legalese about the team’s rights to defend itself, Farid, 34, conveyed his apologies to the opposing team and expressed that his club would still like to play the match. He said the team’s president, Zahir Belgharbi, made the "mistake" of sending the "awkwardly worded" email to Paris Foot Gay on the eve of the Oct. 4 match. However, given the league's strict rules on discrimination and Belgharbi's absence from the hearing, the committee must have decided it was too little too late. The next day it announced it had ejected Creteil Bebel.