World Cup football- more than just a beautiful game

Published 20th July 2018

The World Cup 2018 has come to an end with the French Les Bleus lifting the coveted trophy. World Cup football has the ability to unite billions as all gather around to watch the tournament unfold. It is a time when true, die hard football fans endure (with good humour) peanut gallery commentary from people who barely understand the game yet are full of opinions on who should be substituted and whether that was really a handball. In addition to testing the patience of genuine football supporters, the World Cup football also brings to light the political and social dynamics of our time, particularly with regard to the question of immigration, diversity and tolerance.

Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku, a Belgian national with Congolese heritage wrote a poignant article about how he is portrayed by European media. When he excels he is called “Belgian”, when he underperforms he is the “Belgian striker with Congolese origins”. Born in Belgium, to a Congolese mother and father, Lukaku tells the story of how, as a young football star, he constantly had to show his Belgian ID to other boys’ parents because they could not believe he was Belgian. Whilst proud of his African heritage, Lukaku considers himself Belgian.

A similar dynamic exists with the very diverse French national team. Of the 23 who qualified to represent France this year – 15 have African roots. Goalkeepers: Steve Mandanda, defenders Djibril Sidibe,Adil Rami, Samuel Umtiti, Presnel Kimpembe, Benjamin Mendy, midfielders Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Corentin Tolisso, N’Golo Kante, Thomas Lemar, Steven Nzonzi, and strikers, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, and Nabil Fekir.

Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola’s parents migrated from the Philippines making that 16 out of 23 who have an immigration background that extends past the borders of Europe.

Between the 15 of them Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, Senegal, Mauritania, Togo, Mali, Angola, DRC, Guinea are represented. As eloquently stated by writer Mark Gleeson, it shows the “African diaspora that is a hotbed of footballing talent”. However, therein lies the complexity when one reads the news and social media commentary from Africans who continue to seriously refer to the French team as the 6th African team.

This statement (albeit made with good intentions and very often in jest), when posited seriously risks neglecting the battle for recognition that fully fledged French nationals with an immigration background have to fight for in France as many French people cannot and will never accept them as French nationals. The same is evident in other European countries, as witnessed by Lukaku who frequently had to brandish his ID.

The French team has a long history of diversity and this has always been highly politicised. When they bring back trophies it is celebrated, when they do not – it is highlighted as a problem that needs to be addressed.

When France won the World Cup in 1998, many celebrated the diversity of the team but it was classically used by the right wing leaders like Jean-Marie Le Pen who stated a “team that is full of players of African and Arab descent has nothing to do with the ideals of France.” Fast forward to 2010 and his daughter, right wing leader of the Rassemblement National (formerly known as the National Front) Marine Le Pen, said that “when I look at Les Bleus, I don’t recognize France or myself” one can easily see how the heterogeneity of the team can easily be used to fuel a political agenda. The same curious phenomenon has played out in Germany’s failure to progress to the final 16. This turn of events has been latched on to by to by right wing politicians who blame the early exit on the German players who have an immigration background and their alleged lack of identification with the national team.

Many remain proud of the rainbow-nature of the French Team and feel it represents how open and tolerant France is when it comes to immigrants, yet there have been several occurrences and emerging trends that are diametrically opposed to that notion. For example, the increasing support for populist leaders and parties that proselytize anti-immigration sentiment. Or the incident in April this year, where 100 members of the anti-immigration group Generation Identitaire, blocked Col de l’Echelle in the French Alps which marks the border between France and Italy and is a popular crossing point for immigrants.

Whilst the diversity of the French national team should be thunderously applauded, encouraged and treasured it should not be used as smoke-screen for genuine threats to integration and acceptance of diversity.

Now that the World Cup has come to an end, genuine football fans will be consoled by the return of league football. Hopefully World Cup’s afterglow and France’s multicultural team victory will truly serve as a launch pad for genuine social cohesion and tolerance.

** This article appeared in the Star Newspaper on Thursday 19 July 2018.

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