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Soccer and the politics of immigration

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There’s a wave spreading across Europe right now. Depending on your vantage point it might be seen as a surging tidal wave, threatening to destroy the status quo you’ve grown accustomed to, or, alternatively, it might be seen as a harmless influx, refreshing and long overdue. Regardless of our individual opinions, the wave marches on, seeping into the training grounds of the premier professional football clubs and sprouting some of the top talents in the world. This wave that I’m talking about is the increase in first and second-generation immigrants playing for Europe’s top-flight teams. It’s the wave that’s redefining what the best teams and players in the world look like, and it’s a wave that isn’t stopping or slowing down anytime soon.

Over the past decade, national teams like France, Germany and Belgium, with a promising crop of young players, have become beacons of what multiculturalism and inclusion can look like on a soccer field. These teams give hope to the next generation of football fans eagerly waiting for their turn in the spotlight. The rosters, often featuring a majority of players in their teens and early 20’s, have set themselves up for continued dominance in the future, none more so than France, as evidenced by their recent World Cup victory. They also prominently feature players with names or skin tones or backgrounds that challenge our preconceived ideas of how a Frenchman or a Belgian or a German might look. The introduction of this new generation could be seen as a promising indication of what the future can hold, or, if you’re President Trump, perhaps it’s more of a nuisance.

During his most recent trip to Europe, President Trump surprised absolutely no one and articulated his feelings regarding the direction he thinks Europe is headed, claiming that immigrants are ruining the continent and calling it “a sad situation”. Setting aside the fact that Donald Trump eats his steak with ketchup and wouldn’t recognize culture if Cardi B gave birth to it on the doorstep of one of his ostentatious hotels, the president is articulating a point of view that is gaining a foothold in today’s political arena. While many of the traditional European football powerhouses have started to embrace the diverse nature of their top talents, it would be misguided to assume that this sentiment is ubiquitous. As heartwarming as it is to see people cheer on players of African or Asian descent, it’s important to recognize that oftentimes these immigrants are being celebrated for the service they’re providing, nothing more. Taking France as an example, we’ve seen much celebration over the past few weeks around the ethnic background of the French team, but it would be shortsighted to consider this an indication of any true progress. It’s easy to support a team that wins, slightly harder when your team gets sent home early. For every fan celebrating Paul Pogba and N’golo Kante for their victory, there are a dozen more who will single out and criticize players like England’s Raheem Sterling or Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku or Germany’s Mesut Ozil, for their performances.

Nothing illustrates this phenomenon more clearly than the ongoing saga surrounding the sudden retirement of Mesut Ozil from the German national team. Ozil, a midfielder with Turkish ancestry who played a vital role in Germany’s 2014 World Cup victory, released a statement earlier this week declaring his retirement from international football. The German Football Federation originally placed pressure on Ozil to release a statement explaining a photo opportunity he and a few other players shared with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan back in May. In Ozil’s statement he references feelings of racism and disrespect directed towards him, particularly after the defending champions’ unceremoniously quick exit from this summer’s tournament.

“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. This is because despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society.”

This very sentiment is echoed by a variety of other players, including Lukaku and Karim Benzema. The former is a young star on a team with high aspirations for the future, the latter, while similar in age to Ozil, serves as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when a player points out the mistreatment they’re receiving. Benzema is in the midst of a phenomenal career as an attacker for Real Madrid, but his success doesn’t extend beyond the club level, as he hasn’t played for the French national team since the 2014 World Cup.

The issue for these players is that no matter what they’re able to contribute, they’ll always be considered outsiders in their own country. For Ozil the photo opportunity was about honoring the country his ancestors came from and showing respect to the office of the president. Whether or not we agree with Erdogan’s policies, there is no reason to call into question the loyalty of a player who has consistently given everything for the greater good of the national team.

“Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not fit? My friend Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose are never referred to as German-Polish, so why am I German-Turkish? Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim?”

Here Ozil brings up the important question of why a double-standard exists at all for players immigrating from Turkey versus Poland or any another country. These questions are both relevant and important, and they require a great deal of analysis and thought, but unfortunately they have been overlooked by many prominent figures in Germany. One example is the president of Bayern Munich, the biggest club in Germany and a major influence on the German team, who did nothing to help the situation, releasing a statement of his own, claiming that Ozil “has been shit for years”. While this statement is demonstrably false, it indicates how those in power will react to internal criticisms. This will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on other players who feel similarly in the future, and it’s unlikely that we will have an answer to the questions Ozil brings up. In the end it seems racism in soccer always finds a way.

The lesson here is that while sports can be a beautiful representation of what cooperation and teamwork can achieve, they serve as little more than a distraction from today’s chaotic mess of politics. There is no separating sports and politics because the lives we lead are multi-dimensional. When a player scores and celebrates with a political gesture, the player hasn’t transformed into something else. When an athlete takes a knee or raises a fist in protest, they aren’t venturing into the unexplored world of politics, they are simply using their platform to direct attention to what they consider an injustice. The treatment of immigrants in Europe and the United States certainly qualifies as unjust, and while soccer won’t solve our problems, it can bring people, communities, and nations together to try and find solutions to global issues.

France hopefully learned an important lesson as well, especially about one benefit of having large populations of immigrants in your country. This World Cup served as proof against the ethnocentrism and xenophobia shown towards immigrant populations across Europe. The numbers have been widely cited and repeated, but it bears emphasizing: France, a country with a rich history of colonization and exploitation of African and the Middle East, won the World Cup with a roster of players that are products of this process. There is no World Cup victory without Pogba and Mbappe and Umtiti and Kante and Matuidi. That their victory came during President Trump’s visit to Europe makes it so much sweeter. Despite Trump’s continued rhetoric about how immigration is “ruining Europe”, I think some people in France would argue otherwise. If anything, Trump was right, immigration is changing the culture of Europe. Thanks in large part to immigrants, French folks get to celebrate a culture of winning today, tomorrow, and for the next four years.

Ahmad Saad

Ahmad Saad is an Egyptian-American writer living in North Carolina. He writes on disparate topics including Egyptian and British soccer, politics (Egyptian and American), criminal justice reform, and hip-hop in North Carolina.

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