ST PETERSBURG (Russia): Ahead of the World Cup semi-finals, there was a fair amount of European crowing over the continental identity of the final four teams — France, Belgium, England and Croatia.
So much for the threat posed by Asia, which despite its vastness and riches remains a soccer minnow. So much for the challenge from Africa, resigned again to hope for a glorious future rather than a triumphant present. So much for the titans of South America, whose pedigree and star power fizzled in the face of ruthless European tactics.
French President Emmanuel Macron cheered in the stands during his country’s matchup with Belgium on Tuesday. Mick Jagger, an inveterate British icon, flew out to watch England lose to Croatia the following evening in Moscow. The all-European semi-finals even prompted Nato to issue a celebratory tweet from its gleaming new headquarters in Brussels, hailing a tournament that only a Nato member could now win. Europe, it seemed, was loving its party.
But after watching France’s grinding victory over Belgium in St Petersburg, Russia, little about this World Cup lends itself to a narrow idea of European identity. The match, contested between two European nations, drew supporters from scores of others; this correspondent counted more flags from Latin American countries than Europe.
At a security checkpoint, two men sporting Belgian-flag face paint and Algerian jerseys sang a song in Arabic in praise of Palestine. On the stadium’s main concourse, another duo clad in the green of Mexico had an onlooker dab the French tricolour on their cheeks. “Mexico is here,” shouted one of the men in Spanish, to no one in particular. “But today we are French.” During the game itself, masses of Brazilian fans chanted both for their country and their hometown clubs.
You could chalk these scenes up to the fleeting globalism of the World Cup, a lucrative event sponsored by the world’s largest corporations that pulls in devotees from virtually every corner of the planet. But there has always been a deeper cosmopolitanism at work.
Many of the European squads, as we know, draw heavily from immigrant communities — a testament not just to the multiculturalism of the societies they represent but also the courage and determination of migrants in Europe, achieving success in the face of adversity and pervasive discrimination.
Nowhere was this more evident than in St Petersburg. Seventeen of France’s 23 players are children of first generation migrants. Half of the French and Belgian squads’ players trace their ancestry to Africa, a much higher percentage than the ratio of immigrants in either country. (England’s team, featuring stars of Jamaican birth and Nigerian descent among others, has also been hailed for its diversity.) And their impact was felt everywhere across the pitch on Tuesday night.
Take Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year-old French wunderkind, born to a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother in the notorious banlieues of Paris. He shimmered in and out of this game, but his electric movement and delicate touch drew the same excited murmurs from the crowd that they have all tournament long. Mbappe is only the latest product of a pipeline of talent from marginalised communities, one that has made France a perennial favourite at major tournaments for nearly two decades.
France’s true standout on Tuesday was industrious veteran midfielder Blaise Matuidi, born in Toulouse to Angolan and Congolese parents, who battled through bruising tackles and a possible concussion to stymie Belgium’s attack. And the game’s ultimate heroes were the French defending duo of Samuel Umtiti, born in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, and Raphaël Varane, whose father hails from the Caribbean isle of Martinique. Varane stifled Belgium’s star striker, Romelu Lukaku, while Umtiti sent France to Sunday’s final with a deftly headed goal.
France and its ‘Africanness’
The composition of the French and Belgian squads has led soccer fans from the global south, including yours truly, to suggest that they are also “African” teams of a kind. While it’s a statement of solidarity and pride from afar, the sentiment has been angrily rejected by some in France. Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, tweeted earlier this week that calling France’s team “African” was a “repulsive” mimicry of the far right, which has blamed the foreign backgrounds of French players for the team’s past failings.
But others contend that France still needs to embrace its “Africanness” on Africa’s terms. “France has been black for centuries. If a point must be made by way of this team, maybe it is that France should not be allowed to claim distinction and separation from Africa so casually, because France owes Africa everything,” wrote French-born academic Gregory Pierrot, gesturing to France’s long and wretched history of colonial exploitation — and its post-colonial inequities.
The unquestioned prowess of a French team built from the country’s minority population does offer a happy story of integration and uplift. Not only are players like Mbappe and Umtiti great at what they do, they are also now rich — and even rank at the forefront of the global cultural elite, shaping memes and garnering fans the world over.
But they may never be able to rest easy in this success. “When things were going well, I was reading newspaper articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker,” wrote the Belgian star before the World Cup in a widely circulated essay. “When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”
Matuidi, a hero this week, was the victim of heated racist abuse from Italian fans at games earlier this year. Like so many other African and Arab soccer players who have suffered racism in Europe, he brushed off the bigotry of the “haters” as something that will be ultimately defeated.
For Matuidi, soccer is itself a political act. “Football is a way to spread equality, passion and inspiration,” Matuidi wrote in a Facebook post, “and this is what I am here for.”
—By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2018