With a convincing victory on the grandest stage of them all, France has established itself as a footballing powerhouse. The overwhelming diversity within the French squad was evident for all to see. The German team that won the previous World Cup was also the most diverse in its history. France’s success was touted as a victory for European multiculturalism. But the debate about the provenance of the French team’s victory—many members of the French squad were of African descent—and the shock retirement of German footballer Mesut Özil from the national team, has brought forth the issue of racism and the rising tide of right-wing nationalism in Europe.

Özil, a third-generation Turkish-German, faced massive criticism for his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May, along with team mate İlkay Gündoğan. The episode overshadowed the national team’s preparation for the World Cup, and the pair was jeered by the home crowd in their final World Cup warm-up game in Leverkusen. These events might be reflective of a larger mood of Unbehagen, a sense of unease in a German society that saw the arrival of 1.2 million refugees and immigrants in 2015 and 2016. The controversy also raises questions about identity and acceptance for the many players of immigrant backgrounds in European national teams.

The golden boy of French football, Kylian Mbappé, was born to a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother in the suburbs of Paris. These suburbs or banlieues are typically immigrant ghettos with high rates of poverty and crime, a consequence of deliberate urban policy to concentrate immigrant communities away from the city centre. These suburbs saw massive riots in 2005, a consequence of perceived economic despair and institutionalized racism. However these same banlieues also constitute one of the biggest pools of professional footballers in the world, a result of not only diversity, but also an extremely efficient network of footballing academies to scout and groom talent. In the recently concluded world cup, 16 players traced their origins to the greater Paris region, representing not only France, but also other countries ranging from Portugal to Morocco and Senegal.

While certain European countries such as France, Belgium and Switzerland have been extremely successful in integrating immigrant communities into their footballing structure, there are notable exceptions. Italy, for instance, has a footballing system that is recalcitrant to change, echoing the mood of xenophobia pervasive in its society. The spectacular rise, and fall, of Ghanaian-Italian footballer Mario Balotelli is a case in point. The extremely talented but temperamental footballer has been repeatedly subjected to racial abuse from his own fans. Incidentally, Italy also failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.

A study on the performance of teams in the Uefa Champions League over a 10-year period, establishes that more heterogeneous teams outperform less diverse ones (bit.ly/2uQGYCn). Using “linguistic distance" as a proxy for cultural diversity, the study describes how teams comprising equally talented players may accrue additional benefits due to the diversity in physicality, skills and world views. Football is a fluid game where success is determined by intelligent movements to create space. While synchronization is important, it is that moment of individual brilliance that is celebrated. A diverse pool of players is therefore likely to ensure a greater pool of creativity. However, there are also obvious costs to diversity. A study on the National Hockey League in the US (bit.ly/2LSiKhQ) highlights how the players’ cultural and political differences may impose substantial integration costs on a team, both on and off the pitch.

The European teams seem to be threatening the proud winning legacy of the South American footballing nations, who have had a long historical advantage in terms of diversity. The repeated waves of migration from across Europe, as well as the forced expatriation of Africans to the Americas, ensured a steady flow of diverse people into South America. Football evolved into a universal language of communication between the European immigrant workers, freed slaves, and the displaced Native Americans inhabiting the rugged, yet vibrant urban communities across the continent. As the noted Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galleano describes evocatively: “Thus was born the most beautiful soccer in the world, made of hip feints, undulations of the torso, and legs in flight, all of which came from capoeira, the warrior dance of black slaves, and from the joyful dance steps of the big-city slums."

However, the long shadow of racism weighed heavily over South American football in the initial years. In 1921, the then Brazilian president Epitácio Pessoa issued a decree that there would be no coloured players on the national team competing in the Copa America. The only mixed-race player in the team, Carlos Alberto, was therefore compelled to whiten his face with rice powder. While South American teams have indeed come a long way in embracing their multicultural identity, Europe, today, is facing its moment of truth.

European football teams are increasingly more representative of their diverse populations. While this is great for the game, will these players continue to be accepted in a political and cultural environment that is lurching towards the far right? As Özil emphasized during his retirement: “I am a German when we win, an immigrant when we lose."

Arjun Srinivas is a recipient of the Mint-Hindustan Times-HowIndiaLives Data Journalism Fellowship 2018.

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