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France's soccer team with President Macron on July 16
France's soccer team with President Macron on July 16

"Sport ... is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all kinds of discrimination." Ever relevant words for 2018 from one of the great figures of the past century.

Nelson Mandela, the man who spent 27 years in prison for his fight against South Africa's Apartheid system and went on to become his country's first black president, would have turned 100 years old today. Movie buffs may remember the most memorable sporting chapter in Mandela's story was the 1995 victory of the South Africa in the rugby World Cup.

And now, nearly five years after his passing, his words continue to resonate — on and off the field.

On the eve of Wednesday's centennial celebration, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg, speaking about how striving towards equality ensures "a society can draw upon the talents and energy and skill of all its people." For those with doubts, he added, "just ask the French football team that just won the World Cup. Because not all of those folks look like Gauls to me. But they're French. They're French."

Indeed, since France's victory over Croatia on Sunday, the presence and the proportion of French players with African roots has become a worldwide trending topic.

Some people, like U.S.-based, South African comedian Trevor Noah, chose humor to point out the fact that 15 out of the team's 23 players are indeed of African descent. Sunday Oliseh, a former player and national manager for Nigeria, also tweeted after the game: "Finally Africa wins it's 1st world Cup but in french colours lol."

The accusation hasn't gone down well.

But such comments weren't always made with either humor or good intentions. Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, for instance, insisted that "the French team seems like the African team, in reality Africa won," before accusing France of having "despised Africa" and of racism against Africans and migrants. The accusation, and Maduro's singling out players based on the color of their skin, hasn't gone down well in France, where Parliament member Jean-Christophe Lagarde said he would sue the Venezuelan president. "It's a negation of France. What France is about isn't looking at your origins," Lagarde retorted.

Paris-based daily Le Monde reports that one of the French players, Benjamin Mendy, had a similar reaction on Twitter. Responding to a tweet from a sports website that included the names of all French players with foreign roots accompanied by a flag of said country of origin and the following sentence "All Together As One For France," Mendy changed all the flags next to the names to French flags and said he had "fixed" the message.

But neither a tweet, nor the wisdom of Obama or Mandela, is enough to keep the racism from rising to the surface. Bulgarian daily newspaper Standart, for instance, featured, on its Monday frontpage, a picture of the French team celebrating with the trophy under the headline "Africa Celebrates' and pointing out that most players had their roots in the "black continent." French magazine Courrier Internationaladds that on social media in Bulgaria, photo montages were posted showing monkeys instead of the French players holding the World Cup. In Italy, La Repubblicareports on the numerous racist comments posted on social media after the game. The messages are all the same in substance: "Africa won, not France."

Witnessing this, what would a 100-year-old Mandela say? He might simply repeat another of his memorable quotes: "Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world."

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