Europe should try to be more like its soccer teams

Image: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo
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The United States government was stating the obvious on May 31, when it warned that the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, which kicks off in Paris on June 10, will likely be a target for terrorism. The Islamic State (ISIL) had made its own intentions obvious last November, when it chose a France-Germany soccer match at Paris’s iconic Stade de France as ground zero for a terror spree that ultimately killed 130 people. And Washington would have been aware of the arrest last month by Ukrainian authorities, announced this week, of a suspected right-wing French nationalist accused of acquiring a formidable cache of weapons in order to stage attacks during the tournament.

It’s not hard to see why a movement that takes great care over the symbolic significance of its targets would have chosen Stade de France. Four Muslim players played for France that day (one, midfielder Lassana Diarra, lost a cousin in the attacks); four more represented Germany. The fact that national soccer teams, one of the most popular expressions of national identity in today’s Europe, include so many Muslims and other immigrants of color makes their matches a symbolic tableau of national inclusion. It also makes them despised as much by ISIL as they are by neo-Nazis; both groups believe Muslims don’t belong in Western societies.

Many of the 24 national teams gathered at Euro 2016 represent an idealized version of nations grappling with the challenge of integrating refugees. And the symbolic power of national soccer teams in the political battle to set terms of inclusion and exclusion in the “national” idea shouldn’t be underestimated.

For many Europeans today, national soccer matches represent the only time they are moved to express a sense of national identity. When else do hundreds of thousands of French men and women gather in pubs around the country and the world, solemnly singing “La Marseillaise” and spending a couple of hours ritually celebrating an imaginary connection with unseen millions of strangers? When else do Germans feel comfortable waving their national flag?

“The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people,” wrote the British historian Eric Hobsbawm in 1990, grappling with the power of sport to generate national sentiment. “The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of his nation himself.”

National identity is typically elastic and subject to changing political tides, with its boundaries shifting over time. But the context of Euro 2016 finds European identity in a state of acute crisis: Waves of austerity and long-term economic stagnation fuel increasingly bitter social conflict. The tournament logistics may well be disrupted by French transport strikes over attempted reforms to labor laws, while the influx of refugees from wars in Syria and elsewhere have produced a growing nationalist backlash.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who once branded multiculturalism a failure, has taken a firm stand for decency, insisting that Germany take in a half million refugees from Syria’s war. Besides the duty of compassion, she also knows Germany’s low birth rate means its economy desperately needs a massive demographic infusion. As rightwing movements push back against the idea of integrating refugees into Germany, however, Merkel may be able to count on the football team for help—it’s Euro 2016 squad contains at least eight players of immigrant origins, four of them Muslims.

Even the racist and Islamophobic right seems reluctant to publicly criticize Germany’s popular World Cup-winning squad. Two weeks ago, the anti-immigration Pegida movement tore into a popular brand of chocolate for suddenly changing the images of children on its wrapper to include children of color.But it soon found itself apologizing profusely when the “offending” images were revealed to be childhood photographs of Germany defender Jerome Boateng and midfielder Ilkay Gundogan—children of immigrants from Ghana and Turkey respectively. Amid a firestorm of criticism, Pegida urged its members to stay quiet.

Days later, a leader of the anti-immigration Alternative fur Deutschland party declared that Germans might like Boateng on the pitch, but they wouldn’t want him as a neighbor. This lead to another firestorm of criticism, and another retreat: “Jérôme Boateng is a great footballer and rightly part of the German national team,” the party’s leader tweeted. “I am looking forward to the Euros.”

Even more acute is the dilemma facing Switzerland’s anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (SVP). Switzerland may be capping immigration and banning minarets, but 14 members of its 23-man squad are immigrants—eight of them Balkan Muslims. “Without immigrants, we would not have a team,” said coach Ottmar Hitzfeld during the 2014 World Cup.

And so the anti-immigrant SVP finds itself hailing the team’s successes even as it seeks new limits on immigration.

The makeup of Switzerland’s squad is a reminder that Syria wasn’t the first war to drive Muslim refugees to seek shelter across Europe. Most of Switzerland’s immigrant players are ethnic-Albanian Kosovars, whose parents fled the trauma of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kosovo, of course, didn’t have a national team until a few months ago, because it’s not universally recognized as a nation-state. Then again, FIFA rules remain inconsistent: Wales and Northern Ireland, neither of which is a nation state, are playing in the Euros.

Indeed, 2016 marks the centenary year of the Easter Rebellion against British colonial rule. For the first time in the history of the game two Irish teams will be competing in an international tournament, reflecting the division of Ireland that followed the uprising. But if that violence has largely abated, more contemporary conflicts reflected at the tournament remain volatile.

Europe has still not welcomed Turkey into their political union although it’s more than happy to share the soccer field with it. But if the knockout stage produces a showdown with Germany, don’t expect soccer-mad prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to join Merkel at the game, as would be traditional. Ankara is livid at the German parliament’s vote to recognize the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915 as a genocide. And it’s hard to know what Turkish fans would make of having to face some of the world’s finest Turkish players, like Emre Can and Mesut Ozil, wearing Germany’s uniform.

But that’s nothing compared to the bizarre encounter that awaits Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka when his team faces off against Albania—and his older brother, Taulant. Six of Switzerland’s players could have chosen to represent Albania, while 10 members of the Albania squad were either born or grew up in Switzerland.

And let’s not even talk about the outside possibility that mortal foes Russia and Ukraine could face one another. (Ukraine is having a hard enough time reconciling key players from the capital club Dinamo Kiev and from its rival, Shaktar Donetsk, from the pro-Russian east.)

Global soccer’s rules reflect the reality of an era of accelerated migration in which the concept of nationality is neither fixed nor binary. A player can choose to represent the national team of his country of (long-term) residence, or of his country of birth if that’s different—or of the country of his parents or grandparents. And he can represent one country before he turns 21, then opt for another after he becomes a senior player.

France in 1998 provided an epic example of the potential for football to popularize a more inclusive national identity with Les Bleus’ World Cup victory at the Stade De France—a team of players hailed as “black, blanc, beur” because of their diverse origins, were led to an improbable victory by their midfield talisman Zinedine Zidane, son of an Algerian nightwatchman from Marseilles. Anti-immigrant former-National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen grumbled that it was “not a real French team”, but the team’s victory prompted the biggest street celebrations since the liberation of Paris in 1944.

The elation was short-lived however—football’s socio-drama doesn’t always unite and reconcile. The banlieu revolts of 2005 and 2007 punctured illusions of multicultural harmony. Then in 2010, the team’s World Cup implosion was blamed by French football authorities on the attitudes of black and Arab players.

ISIL wants to narrow the choices of Muslims, but even in the face of racial hostility many younger immigrant players seem committed to a more unified vision. When Les Bleus fought back from the brink of failure to defeat Ukraine and qualify for the 2014 World Cup, the black players grabbed a microphone and belted out a defiant rendition of the national anthem. Defender Mahmadou Sakho made clear the intent of the gesture, telling an interviewer, “We love France and everything that is France [which] is made up of Arab culture, black African culture, black West Indian culture, and white culture.”

France’s government is also mindful of football’s power to shape the national imagination and mood. A government-backed ad campaign for Euro 2016 depicts French people of all colors and creeds sending their team a simple message: “Make us dream. We need it!”

But while France desperately needs the healing power of another multicultural football triumph, the same is true for Germany—and also Belgium, its traditional Flemish-Walloon schism now supplanted by a bitter battle with ISIL in its own cities.

Euro 2016 promises a feast of attractive, attacking football. But the European game remains so compelling to global TV audiences not only because of the movement of players and ball on that field, but because of the chemistry between the game and the crowd. Such passion is an indispensable ingredient of the tournament spectacle. This year, however, that spectacle has taken on an even more symbolic dimension than usual. With two very different conflicts playing out simultaneously in the political and sporting worlds, which vision for Europe will ultimately prevail?