With the world become “seasick,” as The Guardian put it — seasick with angry nationalism, angry pushback at immigrants and refugees, and “the little guy” angry at being invisible in a globalized world — World Cup 2018 has served up a welcome and deeply refreshing tonic. How?
As the Cup culminated in the semi-finals this week, three of the four national teams involved — France, Belgium, England — display an ethnically diverse and integrated roster that, given these countries’ mono-ethnic origins, is strikingly remarkable. At a time of fierce and growing anti-immigrant fervor throughout Europe, sons of migrants who bring superior talent, hustle, and a devotion to win the World Cup for their adopted country can find a place on these national teams. Bravo.
And, given how hard it is to score a goal in soccer, diversity of make-up is most powerfully on display when a team finally puts the ball in the back of the net and the players celebrate, arms around one another, jumping up and down in collective joy (as France does, above). It’s a sight to make the eyes brim.
In sport, where teamwork counts for absolutely everything, where mutual trust and respect among players and manager must exist at the deepest level, you look at these teams, and these collective post-goal celebrations, and think: This is what our angry world could look like — if only it worked as a team.
In the case of France, 17 of the 23-man roster in this Cup are sons of first-generation immigrants, according to Afshin Molavi, senior fellow at Johns Hopkins’ Foreign Policy Institute, in a Washington Post op-ed citing the website Multicultural Cup. The 19-year-old “phenom” Kylian Mbappe, son of a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother, has already matched the record set by Brazilian legend Pele back in 1958 — scoring two goals as a teenager at the World Cup; now, with France going to the final, he could set a new record. Samuel Umtiti (parents from Cameroon) also has scored, while Paul Pogba (Guinea) and N’Golo Kante (Mali) have proved to be vital playmakers.
The head of the anti-immigrant, right-wing National Front party, Marine Le Pen, has complained of “Les Bleus,” as the team is known: “When I look at Les Bleus, I don’t recognize France or myself.” One wonders just how she cheers on her national team. This isn’t to deny Les Bleus have not had contentious times as a multicultural team, even in the recent past, but it is to say Team 2018 is the new gold standard.
Likewise, Belgium has made its multicultural point at this Cup, most thrillingly in its Group of 16 game against Japan when, after Japan scored two quick goals at the start of the second half, Belgium fought back furiously to make three goals in 30 minutes and win. Scoring those goals were Romelu Lukaku, son of Congolese migrants, and Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, sons of Moroccan parents. Proving again to be Belgium’s vital playmaker is Vincent Kompany (Congo). This “golden generation” is the beneficiary of a national program launched in the early 2000s aimed at using soccer to integrate recent migrants.
England, too, has a national team multiculturally symbolic. Midfielder Dele Alli, who scored with a stunning header against Sweden, has roots in Nigeria. Stalwarts on the team are the young and powerfully skilled players with roots in Jamaica: Marcus Rashford, Danny Rose, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker, and Ashley Young. (One wonders how Nigel Farage, a founder of the anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, cheers on his England team.)
Meanwhile, the world beyond the Cup grows ever angrier, more divided. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, heretofore the great champion of assimilating migrants into the European community, is now forced by her coalition partner to compromise on that commitment, in order to keep her government in power. Here in the U.S., we have the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy prosecuting illegal immigrants as criminals, which entailed separating migrant families, a policy applying even to those seeking legal asylum. And recall the vulgarism used by Mr. Trump, notional president of Immigrant Nation, in his reference to African nations and Haiti.
In high contrast, for a demonstration of racial and ethnic comity, keep your highlight reel of this World Cup handy.
Apart from the multicultural symbolism, this edition of the quadrennial contest in the world’s most popular sport has compelled in myriad other ways — the thrills and chills of a record number of penalty-kick shoot-outs, providing almost unbearable drama; plenty of free kicks “postage-stamped” into an upper corner of the net; and regular play that was rarely regular and often dazzling.
And, in this dehumanizing time, there are this Cup’s human stories. Who can forget the Iranian goalie, Alireza Beiranvand, who began life as a shepherd, ran away from a disapproving father to Teheran, lived on the street and did odd jobs until he was accepted to a soccer club — and who, in his hour in this Cup, smothered the penalty kick of living legend Cristiano Ronaldo, lying on the ball for a long thankful moment.
And surely this Cup will be noted for all its upsets, wherein a “little guy” country routs a soccer powerhouse, forcing its early exit, as happened to defending champion Germany, as well as Portugal, Argentina, and Brazil, the latter heavily touted to win this Cup. Spain, the 2010 World Cup champion, was sent home by the host of this Cup, Russia, a team that, going into this tournament, was ranked 70th in the world.
Of course if Croatia, the fourth team in the semi-finals, beats France in the final this Sunday, this Cup will be remembered as the Cup of “the little guy.” And if France wins, it will make a resounding multicultural statement underscoring that, when we all play well together, we all win. Either way, in this angry and divided world, World Cup 2018 has been excellent tonic.
Hang in there, team: Only 204 weeks to go until the next Cup.