It was a major news story 20 years ago when France won the World Cup with a side dominated by the sons of immigrants.
The team starred players whose family roots extended across West Africa, North Africa, French Polynesia, Portugal and Spain. Even Armenia was represented in the form of Youri Djorkaeff.
The mighty exploits of Zinedine Zidane and his comrades seemed to offer dramatic confirmation that “Frenchness” had evolved far beyond the base descriptor of race.
But since that victory in Paris in 1998, it seems we have not made much progress. These are dark days in global politics, and even the fantasy world of football is not immune to the hateful idiocies of the moment.
For starters, the black excellence that anchored France’s latest World Cup triumph has rankled many denizens of the racist far right. In a fairly harmless echo, the colour balance of the side also inspired some lame gags from left-leaning wisecrackers across the world.
South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, enraged the French ambassador to the US by joking that Africa had won the 2018 World Cup.
The ambassador had something of a point. Noah, by pushing the idea of Africanness as a genetic inheritance, was implying that a similar heritability applied to Frenchness.
In a frivolous way, he was therefore racialising the gates of nationality – and playing into the hands of nativist hatemongers who question the authentic Frenchness of black footballers.
This is arguably the greatest weakness of identity politics, as it often nurtures binary and backward-looking categories when it is supposedly trying to eliminate them.
[F]ootballers, like all of us, should be allowed to be two things at once.
But Noah, who is himself a recent African migrant to the US, also had a point when he retorted in his next show that footballers, like all of us, should be allowed to be two things at once: Cameroonian and French, or Muslim and American, or Ugandan and Peruvian.
If a country embraces an immigrant child as a citizen or a national hero, it cannot remove his right to identify (partly or entirely) with his parents’ homeland. This principle, Noah said, was well understood in the US, where everyone’s ethnic roots were celebrated proudly by means of street parades, national days and other events.
This is part of the argument made by Mesut Ozil when he resigned from the German national side in July, citing racism and xenophobic treatment, particularly by the president of the German Football Association.
Born to Turkish immigrant parents in Germany, Ozil recently took a lot of flak for posting on social media a photo of himself posing happily with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ozil also described Erdogan as “my president” in his caption.
Of course this scandal goes beyond the definitions of Germanness and Turkishness. Erdogan is a dangerous man: A wannabe sultan who jails opponents and likes to call Germans “neo-Nazis” when they criticise his actions.
This is an insult that should not be applied to Germans without very strong evidence, and Erdogan has done plenty to earn his status as a villain among mainstream German commentators.
My job is a football player and not a politician.
But for Ozil, Erdogan’s merits as a leader were irrelevant. His meeting with Erdogan was about respecting his ancestry. “For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country. My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies.”
Turkey may no longer be a true democracy, but Germany is one – which means that nobody in Germany has the right to legislate their compatriots’ opinions. If you pay respects to the strongman who runs your ancestral homeland, that’s your business – even if you’re a member of the mannschaft. Freedom of expression applies to the rich and talented too.
And as Ozil pointed out, the Erdogan photo has provided convenient cover for long-suppressed racism in some quarters. He singled out the German Football Association’s president Reinhard Grindel, a former MP and journalist who was particularly angered by the Erdogan picture.
They met to discuss it, at the urging of national coach Joachim Loew, but Ozil says Grindel was more interested in lecturing him than listening to him.
In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.
Ozil also revealed the foul racist abuse he has received from fans, in person and online – and what he described as the biased hostility of the German media in covering the story.
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. This is because despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society. I am treated as being ‘different’.”
For a while, around the turn of the last century, the world seemed to accept that newcomers were a blessing for the country that received them – in football and real life alike.
The great mixing of peoples, we thought, created genius, depth, richness, victory. For the new Les Bleus, that idea remains true. But for Ozil’s tormentors – and perhaps Ozil himself – it is dead.