Immigration: The Saving Grace of Western Economies and Soccer Teams Alike
Why I’m Rooting for the England National Team
How ironic is it that immigration, that scourge of so many nativists in Western countries, could be a saving grace in said countries? As workforces age and economies evolve, countries around the world need both skilled entrepreneurs and unskilled workers to do jobs no one else is willing to do. But like kids being told to eat their essential vegetables, nativists treat hard-working immigrants with disdain.
But let’s digress and talk about my favorite sport, soccer. On the current international break, national teams are looking to turn the page from the 2018 World Cup. In France, the legacy of Zinedine Zidane and company continues to be driven by players such as Paul Pogba (whose parents are from Guinea), N’Golo Kanté (Mali), and Kylian Mbappé (Cameroon, Algeria). In an oddly public gesture, Germany’s team recently expelled three prominent but aging players from its 2014 World Cup-winning team and is being led by Joshua Kimmich, Leroy Sané (whose father is from Senegal and whose mother is German) and İlkay Gündoğan (of Turkish heritage).
But I’m focusing on the England national team. While, as a Jamaican-American, I loyally support the national teams of my two countries, my rooting interest for England has been growing rapidly in the last few years.
The England National Team The England national football team¹ was a mediocre one burdened by obscenely high expectations. The high expectations of a nation that originally exported the game to all corners of the world through its colonial and commercial empire. The high expectations of a nation that houses the world’s best domestic league, albeit one mostly populated by foreigners.
This is the same national team that for years supposedly didn’t have a creative player. The Eric Cantonas, Gianfranco Zolas, David Silvas, Juan Matas and Eden Hazards of the world may have plied their trade in the English Premier League, but called continental Europe home. (To say nothing of the Ronaldinhos and Zidanes plying their trade overseas.)
The continued mediocrity of the English national team had caused no small amount of handwringing. In what seemed to be a timely echo of the Brexit debate, many pundits felt that the solution to the woes of the English national team was the restriction of foreign players in the Premier League.
But now? The English national football team is teeming with exciting, young, talented and creative players. From Raheem Sterling, the lightning-quick player born in Kingston, Jamaica, who has been unfairly pilloried by British media and fans for years to Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi, the teenaged sons of Trinidadian and Ghanaian immigrants, respectively, who were reared on the concrete pitches of South London. What about Dele Alli, the cheeky son of a Nigerian father and English mother, who is one of the best young attacking midfielders in the world? Or Kyle Walker, the left back with a Jamaican father (and English mother) whose surging forward runs and physical play can alter an opposing team’s gameplan? Or Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Ruben Loftus-Cheek — exciting players reflecting heritage of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Guyana, respectively? Non-West Indians and non-West Africans are getting in on the act, as reflected by the recent addition of Declan Rice, whose grandparents came from Ireland and who was previously on the Ireland national team. Even an emigrant is involved, as a key member of the team, Eric Dier, moved to Portugal as a seven-year-old. All of these players have been skillfully integrated into the squad by the manager Gareth Southgate and stalwarts like Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson with not a whiff of the sort of nativist backlash prevalent in other areas of society. In short, the England national football team features all sorts of backgrounds coexisting on a truly diverse and increasingly successful squad.
As the child of West Indian immigrants myself, I can’t help but smile when watching this team flourish, both at last year’s World Cup and now in the Euro 2020 Qualifiers. During each subsequent international break, the England national football team seems to get younger, more diverse, and more exciting. (The more recent teams featured the additions of Sancho, Rice and Hudson-Odoi.) And perhaps, not coincidentally, more dominant.
The Lesson Rather than looking to restrict foreigners and keep them out of our aging workforce, we should be embracing them — and their children! After all, like the Jamaican nurse, it’s the immigrants who will be taking care of us as our American-born workforce ages. Unless Western economies want to stagnate for twenty years like Japan did, we should be welcoming skilled and unskilled workers alike. Rather than building proverbial walls, we should focus on collecting income tax revenue and Social Security taxes from immigrants. (Perhaps this will help offset the skyrocketing systemic healthcare costs of our aging native-born population.) Their children will feel pride in their parents’ birth countries, their homelands, but will embrace their birth countries, their homes, just like the young guns of the England national football team and many of us throughout the world. And, finally, maybe we should be encouraging our students and young workers to eschew the easy route and venture overseas before returning and settling down here, as many young English soccer players such as Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson are doing (or emphatically attempting to do, in the case of Callum Hudson-Odoi).²
¹ While I tend to use the term “soccer” more than “association football”, I can’t in good conscience type the phrase, “England national soccer team”. ² As I’ve written about previously, many young American soccer players are doing the same, which is a great development for our national team.