The world’s great sporting events have a way of transcending sport. That’s certainly true for this year’s World Cup.
Soccer’s great quadrennial carnival has provided plenty of excitement and memorable moments. But paying attention to the political optics has been rewarding, too.
When France and Belgium meet Tuesday in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the tournament’s first semifinal, the field will be studded with immigrants, many of them among the World Cup’s brightest stars. More than three-quarters of France’s team are the sons of first-generation immigrants. Nearly half of Belgium’s squad have similar migrant backgrounds, as does England, which plays Croatia Wednesday in the other semifinal.
This as Europe is being roiled by battles over immigration. Nationalist parties and leaders are in charge in several countries, anti-immigration forces are stronger, and England continues to struggle with how to accomplish Brexit, the 2016 vote to break away from the European Union which was fueled in part by anti-immigrant sentiment.
Les Bleus, the team from France, feature teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe, who has a Algerian mother and a father from Cameroon. Teammates include Paul Pogba, of Guinean descent, and Raphael Varane, whose father is from Martinique.
Two of Belgium’s best players, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany, are from Congolese families. They are members of that nation’s now-famed “Golden Generation,” which includes players with ties to Morocco, Martinique and the Balkans.
In all, half of the players on the two teams have African ancestry — 18 years after the date former Brazilian great Pele set as the time by which the sport would see a team from Africa win the World Cup.
No one should be under any illusion that the success of such teams — even spectacular success — will be enough on its own to turn the tide of the immigration debate, any more than Jackie Robinson smashing the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947 or Texas Western’s all-black starting five winning the 1966 NCAA men’s basketball championship cured our own nation’s troubled race relations. But they helped.
France, in fact, has been down this road before. The 1998 team that won the World Cup was similarly lauded within the nation for its diversity. But an anti-immigrant backlash soon followed. Four years later, far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had complained that the team didn’t look French enough, won 17 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.
In 2017, his equally anti-immigration daughter, Marine Le Pen, took nearly a third of the vote in losing to Emmanuel Macron; Le Pen had echoed her father, complaining of the current team, “When I look at Les Bleus, I don’t recognize France or myself.”
France and Belgium, of course, have complicated colonial histories with some African nations. Lukaku’s father played soccer in Zaire, now known as Congo and once a Belgian colony. The country’s resources and people were brutally exploited for decades, and Lukaku’s family became part of the Congolese diaspora in Antwerp.
Now the nation is enthralled with the dynamic Lukaku, who speaks six languages. But success — and its trappings — can be mercurial. As Lukaku wrote recently of his experience as a Manchester United forward, “When things were going well, I was reading newspaper articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”
While France and Belgium have been wracked by violence by Islamic terrorists, many first or second-generation immigrants, the Belgian team in particular has been a unifying force. Partly, that’s been by design. The country started a national program to use soccer to help integrate recent migrants, which dovetailed nicely with new youth development program.
On the other hand, there’s Italy, one of the soccer nations more overtly hostile to migrants. Italian soccer fans are notorious for their antipathy to African migrants (as is the newly elected nationalist government) and the soccer federation’s president reportedly complained about “banana eaters” in the country’s pro leagues. He might want to think about the possible connection between the national team’s relatively low number of immigrants and the fact that it did not qualify for this year’s World Cup.
One inescapable irony is that the World Cup’s display of sporting multiculturalism is taking place in a country, Russia, whose general hostility to outsiders is well known. And the inclusion on the pitch apparently is being mirrored in the streets.
Three million international visitors speaking dozens of different languages and bringing parts of their own cultures have transformed some of the host nation’s cities with outdoor dance parties and a degree of revelry not typically associated with Russia. There has been an 11-fold surge in Tinder dating app use since the World Cup kicked off, according to The Washington Post, and a surge of marriage requests to various embassies from those nations’ citizens and from Russian women.
And there was one remarkable soccer game as well. Sponsored by Football Against Racism in Europe, a group of refugees now in Russia played a tournament in Red Square itself — migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast and Cameroon playing with native-born Russians in the shadow of the Kremlin.
The players, much more modestly talented than their counterparts being cheered in packed stadiums, harbored the same dreams.
“Since we arrived in Russia, it’s the first time that we were invited to play football,” Traoere Kadjale, 27, of Ivory Coast, told FARE. “We are asking Russia to give us an opportunity.”
In sports as in politics, you take transcendence wherever you can find it.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.