In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you’re probably aware of the fact that there’s a small soccer tournament underway in Russia.
If you’re looking for a reprieve from the daily drumbeat of awful news stories, then you still have one more week to get involved in a World Cup which, so far, has been insanely good. The current world champions, Germany, were dumped out in the group stages. Russia beat Spain by the skin of their teeth in the Round of Sixteen to spark incredible scenes in the streets of Moscow. Meanwhile England are into their first World Cup semi-final since 1990, and are now just two victories away from meme-ing the most unlikely of triumphs into reality.
Tomorrow sees the first two semi-finalists, France and Belgium, face off in St. Petersburg. On paper it promises to be a scintillating match, with some of the world’s most in-demand attacking players competing for a spot in the final. But the true strength of both these teams lies not in the prowess of one star player, but in their full-fledged embrace of a multicultural identity.
Let’s start with France. Of the eleven-man squad that beat Uruguay 2-0 in the quarter-finals, six were either born outside of France or to immigrant parents. They include Raphael Varane, whose father is from Martinique. Paul Pogba, France’s $120 million-rated midfielder, is of Guinean heritage while teenage superstar (see below for an example) Kylian Mbappe has a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother.
A similar level of multiculturalism is seen with Belgium. Two of the Red Devils’ talismans, Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku, have Congolese heritage, while other members of Belgium’s “Golden Generation” include players with ties to Martinique (Axel Witsel), Morocco (Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli), and the Balkans (Adnan Januzaj).
Lukaku, in particular, stands out. A towering striker who can speak six languages, he recently wrote a piece for The Players’ Tribune, documenting his struggles growing up in a low-income community in Antwerp, Belgium.
“I’d come home at night and the lights would be shut off. No electricity for two, three weeks at a time,” he said. “I’d want to take a bath, and there would be no hot water. My mum would heat up a kettle on the stove, and I’d stand in the shower splashing the warm water on top of my head with a cup.”
To outsiders, it might seem a bit strange that players with Congolese or Martinique heritage are playing for France and Belgium. But under FIFA’s eligibility rules, players are allowed to represent any country they have a clear connection to (via birth, parents or grandparents).
The multicultural success symbol of Belgium and France’s World Cup teams is even more pertinent bearing in mind the countries’ recent relationship with its immigrant communities — already complicated thanks to their colonial histories. The terrorist attacks of 2015, in Paris, and 2016, in Brussels have created an anti-immigrant backlash, especially since the attackers hailed from low-income immigrant communities in France and Belgium.
The failures of the European security services to spot the danger lurking in their own backyard has helped fuel the rise of xenophobic populism visible across Europe. In 2017, for instance, the far-right French candidate Marine Le Pen got to the second round of the French election for the first time before being defeated by Emmanuel Macron. Le Pen had previously lamented that “When I look at Les Bleus [The French National team] I don’t recognize France or myself.”
It seems a stretch to believe that soccer will solve the anti-immigrant sentiments that fester in France and Belgium, even if one of them goes on to lift the World Cup on Sunday. But it undoubtedly is a major example of how a welcoming, multicultural attitude can help a nation achieve sporting success.
The consequences reach far beyond the month-long World Cup as well. The Paris banlieues (suburbs), which have long been the go-to example for the right for dysfunctional immigrant communities, are now the greatest incubator of soccer talent in the world. In the early 2000s, Belgium began a grassroots rejuvenation of its youth soccer development, coinciding with a program designed to help integrate immigrants using soccer — a program which is clearly beginning to reap rewards.
“I’ll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch, and I’ll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighborhood we’re in,” Lukaku told the Players’ Tribune. “We’re all Belgian. That’s what makes this country cool, right?”