FIFA WORLD CUP

The world is round, so is football

Is the love Europe has for its players of immigrant background genuine?

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-FRA-CRO-FANS A secure future: An image of French forward Kylian Mbappe projected on Paris’s landmark Arc de Triomphe as people gathered to celebrate the world title | AFP

At the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Emmanuel Macron kicked propriety out of the window on July 15 evening. The French president did not get a yellow card for jumping on to the desk to celebrate his country’s victory in Russia 2018. Instead, the world, used to petty presidents and nasty rulers, looked on admiringly. Soon after, the heavens opened up, washing down the tears of joy on French faces and those of dejection on the Croatian faces.

Macron was 21 when the French last kissed the trophy, thanks to the heroics of Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian descent. Zidane went on to achieve great heights for France, before bowing out in the final of Germany 2006, after head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi. The immigrant story did not begin with Zidane, nor does it end with him. France’s great run in the 2018 edition, which saw traditional powerhouses falling by the wayside, was powered by children of immigrants, mostly of African origin. The youngest of them, 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, won the FIFA Young Player Award.

Twenty years ago, when I landed in Paris in the summer of 1998 to cover the World Cup, France had not won the hearts of the football world like they have done this time round. They were waiting for the world with a smile, and a “bienvenue” (welcome) on their lips. They were the only ones who believed their Les Blues had a chance of winning the Cup. Their star player was midfielder Zidane, whom they described as the son of Algerian immigrants. A boy who grew up in the slums of Marseille. The conservative French saw him as a foreigner till the country entered the final.

But what unfolded on July 12, in Stade de France, Saint-Denis, changed all that. Zidane, overcome with emotion, was crying while singing the French national anthem before kick-off. He scored two thumping headers to sink world champions Brazil, and as he held the Cup, tears of joy streamed down his face. These images were etched into the memory of the French people and finally made Zidane one of them.

New breed: Raheem Sterling (centre) was one of 11 players of an immigrant background in England’s squad for Russia 2018 | Reuters New breed: Raheem Sterling (centre) was one of 11 players of an immigrant background in England’s squad for Russia 2018 | Reuters

That night, as the country celebrated, nationalism touched the sky and glasses were raised in honour of the victorious heroes—many of whom were not ‘ethnically French’. Defender Lilian Thuram, who scored two goals in the semifinal (his only goals for France) was born in the French Antilles. Striker Thierry Henry was also of Antillean parentage. Defender Marcel Desailly (Ghana), and midfielders Christian Karembeu (New Caledonia), Youri Djorkaeff (Polish-American parentage) and Patrick Viera (Senegal) were also key members of the squad. It was truly a victory of multiculturalism, with Zidane as its face.

In this edition of the World Cup, five of the eight teams that played the quarterfinals—France, Belgium, England, Brazil and Uruguay—provided great examples of multiculturalism. The amalgamation of various cultures under one banner is nothing new in football. In Brazil and Uruguay, the vibrancy of the immigrant cultures has been visible for centuries.

Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic was born in Switzerland and learnt his trade in the Swiss youth system. His teammate, midfielder Mateo Kovacic, is a product of the Austrian football system. Even the Russian team had a ‘foreigner’—Brazilian right-back Mario Fernandes, who scored in extra-time against Croatia in the quarterfinals. Fernandes had made his debut for Brazil in a friendly in 2014 (FIFA regulations do not allow players with more than one nationality to switch countries once they play a senior competitive match for one country). He has played for CSKA Moscow since 2012 and decided to represent Russia upon receiving citizenship in 2017.

The union of various ethnicities is evident in the teams from France, Belgium and England. In short, one of six players in this World Cup has an immigrant background. Though this became more noticeable at the quarterfinal stage, teams which were eliminated in the earlier stages also had players who were descendants of immigrants. German midfielders Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan have Turkish roots. Their teammate, defender Jerome Boateng, is of Ghanaian descent. In fact, Jerome’s half-brother, midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, represented Ghana at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Others in the German team with an immigrant background included midfielder Sami Khedira (Tunisia) and defender Antonio Rudiger (Sierra Leone).

Many members of the Swiss team were descendants of immigrants who had fled to Switzerland during the Balkan Wars (1912 and 1913). The team also had players with roots in Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Cape Verde. Fourteen of the 23 Swiss players had double citizenship. Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain has French citizenship by birth, though he does not speak a word of French. Spanish striker Diego Costa played two friendly matches for his native Brazil before switching allegiance to Spain amid much furore in Brazil. His teammate, striker Rodrigo Machado, is also Brazilian. But Machado’s progression to the Spanish senior team was more expected after having represented Spain at youth levels. Portugal also had players of African and Brazilian roots.

Morocco and Tunisia came to the World Cup with players who were born in and living in Europe. Can this be called reverse immigration? Seventeen of 23 Moroccan players were citizens of European countries (The Netherlands, France, Italy and Spain). Half of the Tunisian team was born and brought up in Europe. And though they are all second-generation immigrants, it is interesting to note that they make remittances to Tunisia. Senegal had also fielded such non-resident citizens. Australia, too, had the presence of immigrants such as striker Andrew Nabbout of Lebanese descent and midfielder Massimo Luongo of Italian-Indonesian heritage.

The Belgium team has 11 descendants of immigrants. Forward Romelu Lukaku’s write-up about how his mother mixed water in his milk when he was six because of poverty had gone viral online prior to the World Cup. In that article, he had written that he was a “Belgian striker” when the team won and a “Belgian striker of Congolese descent” when things were not going well. Apart from Lukaku, defenders Vincent Kompany and Dedryck Boyata, midfielder Youri Tielemans and striker Michy Batshuayi have at least one parent with Congolese roots. Midfielder Mousa Dembele’s father is Malian, wingers Adnan Januzaj and Yannick Carrasco were born to Kosovan and Portuguese-Spanish parents, respectively. Midfielder Marouane Fellaini and winger Nacer Chadli have Moroccan heritage. In fact, Chadli was called up to the Moroccan team eight years ago. “I decided not to go,” he said. “But, I am proud of my Moroccan heritage.” The majority of the Belgian team speaks Dutch. The others speak French. But they talk in English in the dressing room and any of the three languages on the field as per convenience.

Mbappe, who became the first teenager since Pele in 1958 to score two goals in a World Cup match and to score in the final, is the pride of the country now. Son of a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother, Mbappe was born in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Paris, after the French triumph in 1998. One of the team’s biggest stars, midfielder Paul Pogba, has Guinean roots. Defender Presnel Kimpembe’s father is from Congo and mother is from Haiti. Other players with immigrant backgrounds include: defender Samuel Umtiti (Cameroon), midfielder N’Golo Kante (Mali), forward Ousmane Dembele (Mauritian-Senegalese and Malian descent), midfielder Blaise Matuidi (Angolan-Congolese) and forward Nabil Fekir (Algeria). In total, there were 15 players of immigrant background, and three others of mixed ethnicity: striker Olivier Giroud (Italian descent), left-back Lucas Hernandez (Spanish descent) and forward Antoine Griezmann (German descent).

Nine members of the England squad had Caribbean roots. Winger/forward Raheem Sterling moved from Jamaica to England at the age of five with his mother and three siblings, three years after his father was killed. If the deciding factor behind Brexit was the youth, they also gave title hopes to the England team in 2018. The average age of the team, which finished fourth, was 26. Striker, captain and Golden Boot winner, Harry Kane is of Irish descent. Forward Danny Welbeck is of Ghanaian descent and midfielder Dele Alli’s father is Nigerian. Midfielder Eric Dier, though born in England, is a product of the Portuguese youth system. He came up through the ranks of Cristiano Ronaldo’s former team Sporting Lisbon. Right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold was also eligible to play for the United States. Many of them have seen hard times growing up. Coach Gareth Southgate said his team was a microcosm of the London society and that they were trying to create a new English identity.

While Belgium was getting ready to play the round of 16, there was a conference of European leaders in Brussels to discuss the immigration crisis. The leaders were of the opinion that Europe did not want any more immigrants. The tentative understanding reached was that the immigrants would be put in temporary camps and those who could prove that they required permanent rehabilitation would be moved to countries which were willing to accept them. But Europe is not ready to accept all those who are escaping from crisis zones. It leads to certain questions: Is the love Europe has for its players of immigrant background genuine? If Lukaku does not score, he becomes a Congolese. So why are people from Congo moving to Belgium? Have the Belgians who find fault with Lukaku forgotten that Belgium had colonised Congo for 52 years and exploited its resources?

Whether the love of Europeans for footballers of immigrant background is genuine or not, there are winds of change blowing in Africa. Centuries ago, European missionaries had brought football to Africa. But, they would not have expected such a harvest of footballing talent in the 21st century from their efforts.

Club class

Eusebio was just 18 when he moved from his native Mozambique (then Portuguese Mozambique) to Portugal in 1960. Six years later, he won the Golden Boot award as Portugal finished third in their World Cup debut.

Though the cosmopolitan outlook of European football aided the coming together of various ethnicities in their teams, the process gathered momentum because of immigration.

In 1899, when FC Barcelona was founded, it had players from different parts of Europe. But in the 1920s, the club got involved in Catalonian politics and projected itself as a symbol of Catalonian nationality. The players could be foreigners as long as they embraced the Catalonian culture. But Catalonian culture has changed much in the past century. In fact, the ballot papers for the 2017 Catalonian referendum featured multiple languages.

Many clubs that came to existence in Britain towards the end of the 19th century were strictly British. The situation changed in two decades. Italian and Swiss players arrived. The situation was similar in Italian club Bari, which was founded in 1908.

In modern football, money has been the deciding factor in two ways—players from poor countries can earn more by playing in Europe and the European teams have the money power to pay more. A major reason for the money flowing into the European leagues has been broadcasting rights. The amount that the English Premier League received from broadcasters increased by 70 per cent in the three years since 2012. In the league’s first season, 1992-93, after the 22 clubs involved broke away from The Football League, the number of foreign players was less than 15.

Within a decade, foreigners made up a majority of most teams.

The Swedish code

In the Germany-Sweden group stage match at Russia 2018, the Germans had scored their winner from a last-minute free-kick by midfielder Toni Kroos. The Swedish player who had conceded the free-kick was winger Jimmy Durmaz. This resulted in Durmaz—a player with Turkish roots—being racially abused on social media. The Swedish team responded with a video message that had only two words: F**k racism!

The Swedish squad for this edition of the World Cup did not have many players with foreign roots. But there are several immigrant players in the Swedish domestic league. Immigrants from eastern Europe and the Middle East have been settling in Rosengard near Malmo, for many years now. Swedish legend, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was born here. Growing up in a slum, Ibrahimovic was involved in petty crimes in his youth. But his talent on the football ground was undeniable as proven by his spectacular displays.

Though the Swedes believe that immigrants are putting the nation’s economy under stress, they don’t hold that against young immigrant footballers. Ibrahimovic retired from international football in 2016. Though many said it was a loss to the 2018 World Cup, there is also talk that his absence has benefited the national team. Free from his superstar shadow and his notorious ego, the Swedish team played well as a unit to reach the quarterfinals.

Raising the bar

The arrival of immigrant players improved the quality of the European leagues. But it raised concerns about them hampering the development of local players, and damaging the prospects of the national team. This concern was most prevalent in England because of the influx of foreign players into the Premier League in the early 1990s.

Nearly three decades later, however, the children of these immigrants, born and brought up in England, have started playing for England. These players have proved their worth at Russia 2018. The future also looks bright. England won the Under-17 and the Under-20 World Cups in 2017. And, players of immigrant background played a major role in both these triumphs.

The Drogba saga

Legendary Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba had moved to France at a very young age. Although he represented Ivory Coast for 12 years, becoming their all-time leading goalscorer and the captain of the national team, he chose not to settle down there. He preferred to live where his club career took him, from France to England and now the US, with brief stints in China, Turkey and Canada, despite the fame he enjoys in Ivory Coast.

The 40-year-old is still a national hero in Ivory Coast. Drogba took the initiative and collected funds to build a hospital in Abidjan, the city of his birth.