The Frenchman's baggage of racist controversy taints his candidacy
The former France international defender, a two-time Confederations Cup winner and World Cup silver-medallist, cannot escape it.
It was in November 2014 when Sagnol committed that error, a costly gaffe that is set to haunt his coaching career ambitions for quite a while.
The 40-year-old, while coach of Girondins de Bordeaux, made comments that got him largely crucified as a racist.
What did he say?
"The advantage of what I would call the typical African player is that they are cheap... ready to fight,” he claimed, speaking to local newspaper Sud Ouest.
"But football is not just about that, it is about technique, intelligence, discipline, so you need everything."
He had, per the majority belief, suggested that African players are only useful for their strength and physicality, that they are brawny and not brainy.
His former national teammate, Lilian Thuram – who is black – described the comments as “prejudice” at best, “ordinary racism” at worst.
Louis Saha, another black footballer who played for Les Bleus, said he was “surprised and shocked”. The anti-racism NGO SOS Racisme called it "uninhibited anti-black racism".
The ruling Socialist Party in France even called on the French Football Federation to sanction him, although FFF President Noël Le Graët only downplayed and dismissed the comments as “clumsy”.
The head of the French foundation for the memorial of black slavery, Karfa Diallo, also said the comments were more “clumsy than racist”.
However, Pape Diouf, the Senegalese-born former coach of Olympique Marseille, disagreed with the “clumsy” defence, slamming it as unsatisfactory. "It's very easy to say it was a clumsy remark to save private Sagnol,” Diouf, who called on African players to boycott matches in order to “break the (racism) routine”, said.
"But Sagnol at root is only one part of a huge machine that rejects, that leaves no place for the many men coming from Africa.”
Another part of the machine is apparently Laurent Blanc, the former French international and coach, who three years before Sagnol’s comments made news for suggesting that French football academies are filled with black footballers who are one-dimensional. "You have the impression that they really train the same prototype of players: big, strong, powerful … What is there that is currently big, strong, powerful? The blacks. That's the way it is. It's a current fact. God knows that in the training centres and football schools there are loads of them."
Of course, people came to Sagnol’s defence. The President of Bordeaux, Jean-Louis Triaud, said: "Willy Sagnol is anything but racist. The interpretation of his words is completely wrong. He is straight-talking and a man of action.”
Bordeaux captain, the Senegalese Lamine Sané, also supported his manager. "We know the man and he is someone very good."
The attempt to give him the benefit of the doubt was great, except that it was probably undeserved, because Sagnol’s apology missed a level of remorse that should have been commensurate with his carelessness. It sounded reluctant and grudge-filled.
"If through my lack of clarity and imperfect semantics, I made people feel shocked, humiliated or hurt, I am sorry."
He insisted that his remarks were "purely about sport, and in no way political or societal", adding: "Given that we were talking about football, the intelligence I mentioned was obviously tactical intelligence. In no way was I talking about intelligence in the literal sense of the word, concerning individuals."
"I'm 37 years old, and have spent 32 of them in football changing rooms. I've never had a problem with anyone," he concluded.
Well, make that not had problems with anyone…yet.
The coach seems set to have problems with the Ghanaian football fandom, who will no doubt be disturbed about the way his mind works when it comes to black footballers. Ghana is a country with a long history of slavery and colonialism, of oppression, exploitation and condescension by white imperialist powers, a situation that has inevitably cultivated a sensitivity - even paranoia - to racist attitudes, either definite or alleged.
Would Ghanaians want someone who made such comments to coach the Black Stars?
The answer? No.
Why would Sagnol want to coach a group of players who according to him don’t possess much beyond physicality?
The incongruity of the situation is even made worse by this: given his baggage of racist controversy, it is easy to buy into the assumption that he may be applying for the job - despite his gross managerial inexperience (only four years in coaching, spread across just two teams, none of which is a national team or African at that) - because he does not rate the Black Stars that highly. This man, who has just managed the French U-23 team and Bordeaux, probably thinks it would be easy for him to get one of the most coveted coaching roles in African football, and that deepens the belief that his comments from before were not innocuous.
Indeed, this is not even the only reason why things don’t look good for him.
His aspiration is also bound to be hindered by the fact that local climate seems to be dominated by a strong clamour for an indigenous tactician to succeed Avram Grant. James Kwesi Appiah, who coached the team for two years between 2012 and 2014, is tipped as the front runner for the post, and his candidacy seems to have received widespread endorsement, not least from the Sports Ministry (who say they want a Ghanaian in charge) and former President J.A Kufuor.
It also does not help, too, that Sagnol's track record thus far as a tactician is under whelming: he managed a measly 39.77% winning percentage at Bordeaux over 88 games in two years and ended up being sacked in March 2016.
He has thus been jobless for over a year now.
The timing - and the history - are all a bit awkward.