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CRETEIL, France — An amateur football tournament in France aimed at celebrating ethnic diversity is attracting talent scouts, sponsors and attracting public attention, bringing together young players from disadvantaged neighborhoods with sports personalities.

The National Neighborhood Cup aims to shine a light on working-class areas with large immigrant populations that some politicians and commentators see as scapegoats for crime, riots and Islamic extremism.

Congolese-born players beat a Malian-born side 5-4 on Saturday in the final match of the month-long tournament, held at a French third-division side’s stadium in the Paris suburb of Créteil . The final was streamed live on Prime Video.

The event competition grew out of local tournaments inspired by the Africa Cup of Nations that have taken place in recent years in the suburbs and towns of France where former immigrants of African descent have lived for years or generations. This tournament, however, was broader and international in scope.

In addition to teams from former French colonies in Africa, participants included teams from European countries such as Portugal and Italy. Players from former French colonies in Asia also competed.

The tournament, which was launched in 2019, challenges the French ideal of a colorblind republic that does not count or identify people by race or ethnicity. The ideal was to offer equal opportunities by treating everyone as simply French; in practice, the inhabitants of places like Créteil are daily victims of discrimination and ethnic tensions.

“We are Afro-descendants, we claim our roots and we are proud,” said tournament founder Moussa Sow, a Franco-Senegalese player who grew up in a neighborhood of Créteil with a difficult reputation and who played professionally in France and Turkey. “It is not because we carry this heritage that we are going to erase our French identity.”

France’s squad – like its World Cup-winning national team – is made up of white, black, Arab and multiracial players who reflect the country’s diversity.

“We have players who have two or three nationalities. It’s a strength for us, an asset,” Sow told The Associated Press.

Sow witnessed growing tensions between young people divided into rival groups depending on which district of Créteil they came from, and wanted to bring people together around a love of football and a celebration of cultural heritage.

Mohamed Diamé, who made 31 appearances for Senegal and played for West Ham and Newcastle in the English Premier League, former Mali and Paris Saint-Germain defender Sammy Traore and Senegal coach Aliou Cissé have all taken part. In February, Cissé became a national hero after guiding Senegal to a long-awaited African Cup of Nations victory.

Both Traore and Diamé reached the highest level of football and both grew up in Créteil, showing youngsters that success is also within their reach.

“I started my first training here when I was 7 years old. I considered the people of this neighborhood like brothers,” Diamé told the AP. “It looks like a professional tournament. We talk as a group, we support each other, we are determined.

The Amateur Cup has grown since the launch of Sow in 2019. Colorful placards of multinationals and local businesses sponsoring the event were seen around the pitch. Young people and families can grab a merguez sandwich – a spicy sausage of North African origin long popular in French football stadiums – or other snacks and sing along to popular French songs, played by a DJ near the pitch.

“I am happy and proud, despite the anxious climate in France, to see people from different generations coming together,” said Sow.

Even though the tournament is strictly amateur, the technical level of the players was good. In last weekend’s semi-finals, high-quality cross-passing and clever dribbling were cheered on by the crowd. Some scouts were on the sidelines, sensing an opportunity to sign talented young players.

The suburbs and satellite towns around major cities, known in French as ‘the suburbs’, are fertile ground for football talent in Europe. Academies in France – including Lyon, Monaco, Nantes and Rennes – are ranked among the best in Europe along with Spain for developing young players such as Real Madrid great Karim Benzema and World Cup star Kylian Mbappe.

But these same neighborhoods have also carried and marked by a bad reputation.

In late May, some far-right politicians accused suburban youths of committing violence on the sidelines of the Champions League final at the Stade de France in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. They have been widely accused of vandalism, endangering public safety and fraud.

Sow pointed out that despite many people’s mistrust of young people from the suburbs, where poverty and minority populations are concentrated in France, the Créteil tournament went well. Losses were accepted with grace and the fans who ran onto the pitch after the wins were cheerful rather than violent.

The mayor of Créteil supports the events, and a newly elected MP from the constituency, Clémence Guetté of the left-wing parliamentary coalition NUPES, made it to the semi-finals. Guetté called it a “unifying” event that promoted the “beautiful values” that sport generates.

Diamé, who has made around 240 Premier League appearances, has never let that take him away from his roots.

“It doesn’t matter if you are black, white or Asian, everyone is welcome,” he told the AP. “Children, parents, grandparents, uncles or aunts. Everyone is there to enjoy a pure moment of pleasure.

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