- Associated Press - Saturday, April 30, 2011

PARIS (AP) - The technical director of the French Football Federation was suspended by the sports ministry on Saturday over a claim that the FFF was limiting black and Arab players in national training programs.

Francois Blaquart was suspended immediately, pending an investigation into the allegations to be completed within eight days, the ministry and FFF said in a joint statement.

Blaquart told RTL radio he was “completely devastated” by the suspension.

“I feel hurt,” Blaquart said. “I await with impatience and serenity the outcome of the committee’s inquiry.”

He added, “I am not racist at all.”

Investigative website Mediapart reported on Thursday that senior federation staff approved proposals to limit to 30 percent the number of players of African and North African descent once they reach age 13.

Mediapart claimed Blaquart and national coach Laurent Blanc approved the proposal to limit minority players in training centers and soccer schools and called the move “a genuine segregation applied to football.”

“We can organize some quota system but without mentioning it,” Blaquart was quoted as saying by Mediapart.

Blaquart told RTL radio: “That such a meeting can be recorded and released publicly in such conditions is a scandal. It raises the question of the integrity of some staff members.”

On Friday, FFF president Fernand Duchaussoy and Blanc said such a move was never discussed. Blanc called the report a “lie.”

In the statement Saturday, the FFF reiterated that “none of its elected officials validated or even imagined a quota policy.”

But Mediapart published on Saturday excerpts from a meeting held in November when ethnic quotas were mentioned. Officials from the federation, coaches from the youth squads and Blanc attended the meeting, Mediapart said.

“The debate in which I took part was obviously not aimed at reducing the number of blacks and Arabs in French football,” Blanc told the FFF website. “It only aimed at contemplating the future of French football by discussing the delicate issue of double nationality and the conditions for a new project.”

Double nationality was the initial topic of the meeting but the debate moved toward the sensitive issue of ethnic quotas.

“When players don the jersey of the (France) national team at 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20 and then go and play for African teams, that bothers me a lot,” Blanc was quoted as saying by Mediapart. “The Spaniards told me: ‘We have no problem because we have no black player.’”

The controversy of racial discrimination comes at a time when France is trying to rebuild its image.

France crashed out in the first round of the World Cup last June in South Africa after players went on strike to support Nicolas Anelka, who was dismissed from the squad for insulting then-coach Raymond Domenech. Anelka was banned for 18 matches and three other players were handed suspensions.

The World Cup debacle led to loaded questions about why Patrick Evra, a black, wore the armband, and why Franck Ribery, a convert to Islam, was selected the vice-captain.

Blanc, took over from Domenech after the World Cup, managed to restore France’s credibility on the field by topping its group in qualifying for the 2012 European Championship and recently defeating England and Brazil in exhibitions.

“I admit that some terms used during that (November) meeting and taken out of context were ambiguous and I apologize if I have offended some people’s sensibilities,” Blanc told the FFF website. “But I can’t bear being suspected of racism or xenophobia as I am against any form of discrimination.”

Since becoming the France coach, Blanc has often raised the issue of the numerous players with double nationalities who benefit from French training centers before choosing to play for another country.

Blaquart has also said the double nationality issue should be tackled to improve the national team’s results in big tournaments.

Blaquart said Friday the federation was exploring ways to convince those players to play for France and was adamant “no restrictive measures” will be implemented.

“The problem is the confusion,” Blaquart told RTL radio. “The word quota has been associated with ethnic issues while that was not at all the case. The problem is double nationality. It has no racial or ethnic connotation.”

According to Mediapart, directives aimed at limiting the number of black and Arab players have already been sent to training academies.

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