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

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.

Paris Foot Gay issued a press release two days later, as it does in all sports-related matters deemed homophobic. The club’s co-founder and current president, Pascal Brethes, said his phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. Founded five years ago, the club welcomes players of all stripes and exists as a place "where gay players don’t have to hide their homosexuality," he said.

Currently, no professional soccer player in France has identified himself as gay, Brethes said, citing an atmosphere of intolerance that persists even though five out of 20 professional teams have signed charters promising to fight against homophobia in their ranks. "The rest don't want to sign," Brethes said. "What are their reasons?"

Creteil Bebel's early attempts to defend the e-mail included Belgharbi going on the air to proclaim that he was not homophobic but had a problem with the team's name, which he said seemed to put sexual preference ahead of the sport. Both teams were adamant that playing the sport was their priority.

That Belgharbi was not present to defend his statements at the hearing only made his lapse in judgment that much harder to forgive, some in the audience said. Farid, the captain, said the media pressure had traumatized Belgharbi. "He has had to turn off his phone, his family has been harassed and media cameras have shown up at his job," Farid said.

Brethes had previously expressed compassion for the team, saying that they had never experienced such a media storm, a statement confirmed by Farid, who said the match against Paris Foot Gay was to be the team’s second since it was formed only this season.

A few nights before the hearing, at a restaurant where the team usually gathers for dinner after a match, Paris Foot Gay members pored over a front-page newspaper story about the conflict. They marveled at being mentioned in Les Guignols, the satirical puppet show about the day’s news. The story did not seem to be going away.

Brethes said one way for the two teams to put the matter behind them was to join forces and compete against celebrities and artists in a benefit match against discrimination. He has scheduled the match for Nov. 14. Creteil Bebel, however, declined the invitation. Reached by phone, Farid said "there's nothing more to say" about the matter, especially in light of the team's punishment, which he found particularly "harsh."

"Forcing people to listen to you doesn’t work," Brethes said. "If we can grow from this ... . If people want to evolve, it will be a victory."