Anti-Immigration Policies Will Be Expensive for European Football

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‘Immigrants’ are key to European football. Fans need to push back anti-immigration politics and sentiments to protect their legacy.

Jerome Boateng. Credit:   Reuters

Jerome Boateng. Credit: Reuters

There was a moment in Germany’s opening Euro 2016 match against Ukraine when defender Jerome Boateng collapsed into the net after miraculously clearing the goal-bound ball. The act epitomised Boateng’s excellence. The 27-year-old Bayern Munich player gave it his all to ensure Germany maintained its lead. But perhaps, for some, that will not be enough.

Just over a fortnight ago, Boateng was at the centre of a controversial statement by the anti-refugee party Alternative für Deutschland’s (AfD) deputy leader Alexander Gualand. Now, Gauland had no problem with Boateng’s spot in the team. “People like him as a football player…” the politician began. But there was a problem. Boateng has a Ghanaian father. “But they don’t want to have a Boateng as their neighbour,” concluded Gauland, with the confidence of a man who thought he had handled the delicate statement quite well.

Sadly for Gauland, that was not the case. He quickly became the target of public ire and even his party’s leader, Frauke Petry, had to apologise. Gauland was later forced to consume a helping of humble pie and say sorry as well. That’s fair, then, you might say. Let’s move on, shall we?

No, we shall not. For this March, the AfD had run on a virulent anti-refugee campaign to stun the German political establishment. The party became a part of the state parliament in three regions for the first time in its history by exploiting the public dissatisfaction with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees. In the aftermath of the historic gains, the AfD’s leaders felt emboldened. Even a world cup winning star, who is a core member of the German national team, could not be spared from the anti-refugee rhetoric.

The disapproval of immigrants in German society is not a recent development either. In 2010, Merkel had also denounced the noble virtues of multiculturalism. “This approach (multiculturalism) has failed, absolutely failed,” she had said quite emphatically. In light of that statement, her change of heart last year was certainly worthy of appreciation. Perhaps, Germany’s 2014 world cup victory in Brazil had impacted her thinking.

For the Germans probably would not have won the biggest trophy in football without the presence of immigrant footballers in their team. Six players who had appeared for Germany in Brazil – including stars like Boateng, Mesut Özil and Miroslav Klose – had at least one parent born abroad. Indeed, no less than ten footballers in the German squad at the ongoing Euro in France could have represented another country. The hosts have the highest number of ‘immigrants’ with 15, while Romania is the only team in the tournament with none.

A changing Europe

This is reflective of the changing demographics in European societies. White-only communities dominated by Christians are increasingly a thing of the past. Due to the liberal and social democratic values that have been a feature of many European countries, a commingling of cultures has resulted in a more diverse social setting. Yet, as the recent backlash against refugees and immigrants suggests, it’s a reality to which many do not want to adjust.

Football, being one of the few cultural unifiers, poses a distinct problem. To ask the question AfD’s Gauland wanted to ask, albeit in a different tone, is it possible to live with those who are useful to you only when they bring sporting glory? The symbolism attached with football means that the sport is not always subject to the intrusive scrutiny that seems to follow immigrants wherever they go.

This was particularly visible in the case of the anti-immigration movement Pegida last month. Followers of the group excoriated a popular chocolate brand for including children of colour on its wrapper. But when it turned out that the photos were that of Boateng and Turkish-origin Ilkay Gundogan in their childhood, Pegida was quick to apologise like the AfD and Gauland. It seems World Cup glory brings certain exemptions.

These issues are not limited to Germany alone. The Switzerland national side has had to fight its own battles. When the Swiss met Albania in their opening Euro match on Saturday, six of their squad members could have chosen to represent the latter. Not to mention, ten of Albania’s players could have played for Switzerland too. This led to an interesting scenario. For the first time in the history of the European championships, two brothers played on opposing sides – Granit Xhaka (Switzerland) and Taulant Xhaka (Albania). Their mother celebrated the occasion by wearing a half-and-half t-shirt that sported the flags of both countries.

However, the number of secondos (second-generation immigrants) might come down in the Swiss national team in the future. Two years ago, a referendum to make the country’s immigration policy stricter was accepted by its citizens. Indeed, when Switzerland won the 2009 FIFA under-17 World Cup, some members of the side were questioned in the media about ‘how Swiss they felt’. A few of them and other immigrant footballers now make the backbone of the national side. It’s fair to say Switzerland would be severely depleted on the international stage without its immigrant footballers. No wonder then that the Swiss Soccer Federation has publicly admitted that it provides assistance to talented players in their applications for citizenship.

Austria’s biggest football star David Alaba, born to a Nigerian father, has not escaped the virulent rhetoric either. Last month, the Austrian public almost elected the far-right Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer as their president. His narrow defeat, however, is unlikely to bring an end to the anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic propaganda. In 2014 Andreas Mölzer, who was initially supposed to be the Freedom Party’s candidate for the presidential election, called Alaba “pitch-black” in the weekly newspaper he edited. His racist outbursts eventually forced his party to plump for the more politically correct Hofer. The dangers, however, remain alive.

Opportunism and misinformation

Foreign-born footballers have become so prevalent across European football that many have started to claim that their presence militates against the very idea of international football. British tabloid The Sun called players who represent a country different from their birthplace “mercenaries” on Saturday. It’s a particularly strong term to use, questioning the integrity and motives of footballers who do not represent the nation of their birth. But is international football weakened by the presence of footballers from diverse cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds?

The fears over the potential loss of meaning for international contests are misguided. The Bosman ruling of 1995 facilitated the movement of footballers and coaching staff across Europe. Due to the constant exchange of coaches and players, ideas about playing the sport are increasingly shared and the gap between teams has come down to some extent. With greater cultural interactions in the world outside football and sharing of ideas and techniques within, it naturally flows that the diversity would be represented in the sport. If a national team is supposed to represent its people truly, it cannot marginalise those who live within a nation’s boundaries.

However, the social tensions that were the offspring of the global economic downturn in 2008 cannot be far behind. Racism and xenophobia are easy weapons in societies that are uncertain of themselves. An intense nationalism provides refuge when economic policies let people down. Football’s position as a cultural universal affords it a status enjoyed by very few social institutions. Those who seek to assert themselves as dominant once again, also attempt to bring their national football team in line with their world-view.

This is why The Sun’s assertion is opportunistic. Days after terming the footballers ‘mercenaries’, the tabloid announced its support for the ‘Leave’ campaign in the June 23 referendum on Britain’s European Union membership. An anti-immigration agenda is at the centre of its disaffection with the EU. Facts clearly do not matter.

Twelve of England’s 23 footballers currently representing the nation in France can trace their ancestry outside their ‘home’ country. Raheem Sterling, Chris Smalling, Danny Rose, Kyle Walker (all Jamaica), Adam Lallana (Spain) and Dele Alli (Nigeria) were in the starting eleven for England’s tournament opener against Russia on Saturday. Indeed, due to the long-running roots of the British Empire, England has been able to call upon various talented players of non-English heritage for decades. The team has been richer for the expanded resources at its disposal. Of course, The Sun chose not to mention anything related to the England national side in its attack on “mercenaries”. In the tabloid’s eyes, the rules are bent only by foreigners.

Fans must take on the anti-immigrant forces

In light of such misinformation and disaffection with the immigrants, what is the way forward for European national football teams? Despite the structural obstacles in front of the immigrant population, the gains they have made are remarkably impressive. Thankfully fans, or at least some sections of them, acknowledge the benefits they stand to get by opening their doors to communities that have been historically marginalised.

When Merkel chose to allow the entry of refugees in Germany last year, football fans across the country displayed ‘Refugees Welcome’ banners at domestic league games. It was a heartwarming gesture that demonstrated the weak hold of racist and neo-Nazi groups on German spectators. Such a massive show of support would have been difficult to achieve in early 2000s when black footballers were subjected to vile abuse.

However, the cue needs to be taken forward. There were scenes in other European countries where the decision to welcome refugee was viewed with distaste. Particularly in Poland, there was a steady stream of anti-immigrant propaganda in football stadiums. It would not be a surprise if such incidents were repeated in the coming months.

On Tuesday, Hungary celebrated its first appearance in a major tournament after 30 years by upsetting fancied Austria 2-0. It was a welcome return for a side that had dominated international football in the 1950s. However, it’s unlikely that the joy experienced by Hungarians would have been the same if the side had depended on immigrant footballers like Switzerland and Germany.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has identified the revival of the national side as one of his government’s core objectives. Unfortunately, he has also gained notoriety for his strident anti-immigration agenda. While he continues to blame the European Union for Hungary’s economic difficulties, a huge amount of money has been spent by the state on building and refurbishing football infrastructure. Although Hungary’s national team seems to be finally making the leap towards the right side of history thanks to Orbán’s policies, he has chosen to not move forward.

Despite Europe struggling to stay together, European football has more or less chosen the way it is going. Foreign-born players will continue to represent nations of their choice. FIFA’s rules even allow players to switch their national team if they have at least one parent or grandparent from their to-be adopted country or they have lived there for a minimum of five years. This liberal approach allows multiculturalism to thrive in international football.

European football, as eminent writer David Goldblatt has noted, has been able to consistently provide a more inclusive vision of continental identity. This can be noted in the participation of clubs and national sides from countries that have been on the political and economic margins historically. As footballers like Boateng continue to delight us at the biggest stage, it’s up to football fans to protect this admirable legacy. The threat posed by the anti-immigration rhetoric needs to be cleared immediately. Even if we, like Boateng, end up collapsing into the net.

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