Germany’s annihilation of Australia was the only high point of a rather dour opening few days of the World Cup, a tournament where the vuvuzela has become more of a talking point than the happenings on the field. That German performance was unusual, though, in another way: Six of those who played the game were either foreign-born or had immigrant roots, as were another five members of the squad.
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What’s the big deal? Well, it’s this: When a national team like Germany, which has all these years been homogenous to the point of insularity, picks 11 members of its World Cup squad who aren’t ethnic Germans, you know football is changing. It raises this question: With national sides importing players, how different is it really from club football?
It’s a moot point, especially when you realize that the German squad with its un-Teutonic surnames such as Oezil, Tasci, Gomez and Cacau, has a similar diversity to the Inter Milan team that won the Champions League—where only one Italian actually played, that too in injury time.
Rainbow nation: The German team is a multi-ethnic mix; Mesut Oezil (standing) is of Turkish origin, and striker Cacau, who was born in Brazil, was given German citizenship only last year. AP
Multi-ethnic national sides are not new; the early trend was for national sides to field players from their former colonies. Spain and Portugal started it in the 1950s and 1960s, the Dutch were more successful in the 1970s and France won a World Cup with it in 1998. The newer trend is for countries, especially in Western Europe, to tap the potential among the immigrant communities with whom they may have no historical or colonial link—and so Zlatan Ibrahimovic plays for Sweden, Hakan Yakin for Switzerland and Khalid Boulahrouz for the Netherlands.
It’s the corollary to what happened to English football from the 1970s onwards when the first wave of imports started coming in: Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen for Bobby Robson’s Ipswich, and most famously, Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa in the Tottenham Hotspur team of the late 1970s. That line-up, which also included Glenn Hoddle, evokes the same memories and nostalgia among Spurs fans as, say, the Busby Babes for those Manchester United fans lucky enough to see them.
Round about the same time, but with decidedly less long-term success, Indian football saw the entry of the three Iranians, Majid Baskar, Jamshid Nassiri and Mehmood Khabaji, and the Nigerian David Williams.
I remember then thinking they were from a different planet. Baskar was the quiet schemer, Nassiri the more exuberant striker, as was David Williams (aside: they had the same effect on us as the Pakistan cricket team that toured India in 1979-80, with the likes of Imran Khan, Majid Khan, Asif Iqbal, Sarfraz Nawaz, Zaheer Abbas…they just seemed a few inches taller and wider than us, even if the difference lay only in their strut).
What do the imports bring? Mainly flair. The top leagues all import the flair players. Even in Spain, which has enough flair of its own, the two most high-profile players are an Argentine (Lionel Messi) and a Portuguese (Cristiano Ronaldo).
It’s more so in Italy, where Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek were followed by the Dutch trinity—Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit—at AC Milan. It’s all good business; racial and ethnic integration, if at all it occurs, is a by-product.
Which brings us right back to Germany?and their new-look?multi-ethnic side. It’s a complex process that began during the 2006 World Cup, when Germans found out it was okay to back their team just as other fans did, by singing and chanting and waving the national flag. They then began coming to grips with the make-up of their population, with its considerable (and conspicuous) immigrant component—one unconfirmed statistic suggests 18% of Germans have at least one parent who was born elsewhere. The final step, football-wise, was to ensure that the talent among those communities played at home, or at least played for the home country.
Jumping ship: Portugal midfielder Pepe played for Brazil’s U-21 team before changing his nationality. Reuters
So Mesut Oezil, who would otherwise have played for Turkey, was nurtured by the German system to which he has now pledged his international career.
That level of integration doesn’t come easy, as Germany is finding out—a debate over whether players should sing the pre-match national anthem has got Franz Beckenbauer into action and the Dutch camp banned Twitter after Eljero Elia was reported to have madeanti-Moroccan statements.
Typically, South Africa is leading the way. This is a country where racism doesn’t exist merely to connote hostility between black and white—there has been, in the past couple of years, violent attacks on immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Somalia, and that’s before we get into the more infamous stuff. There were fears leading up to the World Cup that those racial tensions would erupt again. Yet, conversations with South Africans of different hues—and for somereason they all speak a bit more freely when they learn of my nationality—suggests those fears may be misplaced. A peep into any pub when any African team is playing confirms that football could have another reason to be “the beautiful game”.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo and is covering the World Cup for their sister website Soccernet. He will be writing for us through the tournament.
Write to Jayaditya at firstname.lastname@example.org