Football and Immigration

Mahimna Bhagwat
Feb 14 · 4 min read
Teenage superstar Kylian Mbappe with the World Cup trophy

Chants of “Allez Les Bleus” (“Come on Blues”) reverberated through Russia as France went on to become world champions of the most watched sport in the world. When France lifted the World Cup on 15th of July 2018, few were surprised. The team had the right balance of the exuberance of youth and the composure of experience. On the biggest stage of them all, they blew away Croatia in the final to win, arguably, the most coveted prize in the world of sport. As this triumph unfolded, the world sat up and took notice of the world champions’ squad. Behind this squad’s success, was a complex narrative of colonialism, immigration, talent and a meticulous plan to harness that talent.

After the Second World War, France saw a wave of immigration from its colonies to make up for the post-war labour force crisis. The people who came in through this wave stayed, and eventually established themselves as French citizens. On failing to qualify for the 1962, ’70 and ’74 World Cup tournaments, France started a grassroots training programme to scout, develop and integrate talent through a network of academy systems with a number of top French football clubs. This system yielded results, with France’s first World Cup triumph coming in 1998, with a squad boasting the likes of Desailly, Thuram, Vieira, Zidane and Henry, all of whom are considered some of the all-time greats of the game. Another thing they had in common was their African/Carribean ancestry. The spine this time around was formed from Samuel Umtiti at the back, through N’golo Kante to Paul Pogba and the absurdly talented Kylian Mbappe — a quartet of Cameroonian, Malian, Guinean and Algerian descent.

Belgium went down a similar path, whose revitalization football programme resulted in a “golden generation” of players, leading to a 3rd place finish at the World Cup. Below is a picture of Romelu Lukaku revitalizing the Belgian squad with his words. Lukaku is of Congolese descent, a country that saw hundreds of thousands of deaths under Belgium’s King Leopold. England, similarly had about 48% of its players come from countries which were part of its vast colonial empire. Two of Switzerland’s best players, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, are of Albanian/Kosovan descent.

Romelu Lukaku during Belgium vs Japan in the round of 16

On the flipside, while these European giants scaled such dizzying heights, only 5 African nations managed to qualify for the World Cup finals in Russia. Of these 5 — Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia — none managed to reach the knockout stages. Whilst many of these nations had players who chose to represent “adopted” countries, the reverse also holds true, with Senegal centre back Koulibaly and Morocco captain Mehdi Benatia born and developed in France, whilst Victor Moses choosing to represent the Super Eagles, even after turning out for all age groups up until the England U-21s.

All this was happening in the backdrop of a rising wave of right-wing nationalism not just across Europe, but also the world. Marine Le Pen, president of the right-wing National Front, rang Emmanuel Macron close, before eventually losing out the 2017 election. Germany seemed to be falling apart over the immigration debate. Britain’s separatist tendencies brewed into a messy and complicated Brexit. Switzerland, yes, SWITZERLAND, polled around 30% votes for the Swiss People’s Party not that long ago in 2015. A common theme across these stories is the anti-immigration rhetoric being perpetrated by these parties for political gain, the same open door is leading to immense joy on the football pitch.

It is easy to ignore deeper questions of racial justice, among others, whilst revelling in the romance of sport. It is hard to imagine as rosy a future for those who do not have the fancy footwork and flair of Mbappe or the power and tenacity of Lukaku. For a lot of players who turn professional, football presents a way out of poverty and discrimination. However, the sport is a meritocracy. If one does not make the cut, do they view this World Cup triumph as an answer to the debate and a potential remedy to the system, or just as a passing jolt of ecstasy?

Either way, this tournament has helped us paint a picture of the other side of the immigration debate. A mix of talent and diversity has helped a country become champions of the world. FIFA released a statistic that said 1 of every 10 World Cup footballers is an immigrant. By repelling immigrants at the border and building walls, maybe your country is giving up on a shot at glory? Maybe celebrating pluralism is a better path forward than being siloed in what feels comfortable and easy? This is power sport has, people, have. They might be judged on what happens on that pitch during the 90 minutes, but they made us aware of something that’s much larger than any of them, any of us — the power of unity in diversity. France has shown itself to be a stunning example of this, and hopefully, the rest of the world can follow suit.

Mahimna Bhagwat

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I like stories. I’m here to read a few and hopefully write some of my own.

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