Soccer Champions … and Immigrants
Immigration has displaced terrorism as the number one problem in Western democracies. What an interesting and timely lesson, therefore, the triumph of the French soccer team in the World Cup offers us.
Most of the players are children or grandchildren of African immigrants, born or raised in the troublesome neighborhoods of the periphery, the so-called “banlieues.” Fifteen of the twenty-three players in the national team are of African origin, including four from the Congo, three from Mali, and two from Cameroon and Algeria. Most of its world-renowned stars, such as Mbappé and Pogba, have that origin.
When France won its first World Cup in 1998, the multiculturalism and miscegenation of the national team was amply discussed. A term was coined (“Black, Blanc, Beur”) that alluded to the black, white, and Arab composition of the group. Now, the immigrant accent is even greater than then.
I witnessed the explosion of jubilation in France by people of all social conditions, political inclinations, and ethnic origins because I was in Paris when the World Cup final took place. (As I write this comment, I am still deafened by the crazed celebrations.) This speaks to us of an integrated country, of a sense of “nation” that does not depend on the origin of its members and belies the ideological construct of cultural nationalists for whom provenance is all-important.
Many citizens who vote for the Front National, the party that has become the bête noire of the immigrant population and is still a menace, have enthusiastically participated in the celebrations triggered by the French team’s achievement in Russia, which presumably means that they find in these second-generation immigrants reasons to feel “national” pride. What I am pointing out here is not so much the hypocrisy of these nationalists but the lesson that the team’s players offer to those who rant about immigration as a threat to the nation.
The players, and the national jubilation they have provoked, are telling us that immigrants can contribute to a community with equal or more success than natives. They tell us that the sense of belonging and identity is not given by the ethnic origin of the members of society, but by the way in which its individuals can associate creatively and productively in the pursuit of common objectives.
Many things are wrong with the way in which liberal democracies deal with the influx of immigrants. But in soccer, France has found an interesting formula—one that partly explains the difference, for example, between what happens in African countries, whose soccer concentrates a lot of unrealized potential, and what happens with African immigrants in France, whose potential can develop successfully. The banlieues bustle with kids who, for lack of opportunities in other fields, disproportionately dedicate themselves to sports, soccer in particular. Professional soccer devotes time and resources to observing and recruiting promising youngsters in that urban periphery and then takes them, with their parents’ support, to specialized sports centers that help them improve by teaching them a discipline and systems that refine their talent. Professional clubs, which have divisions for minors, in turn, recruit those that interest them most and start them in a sports career. This is how the Pogbas and Mbappés of French soccer are born.
I do not forget that while in soccer these facilities exist, other activities do not work that way. But what seems clear is that in this particular area of a liberal democracy traumatized by immigration, what determines the specificity of a human group in terms of its success is not the provenance of its members, but its ability to incorporate initiatives and talents of different origin within an order that facilitates the integration and the achievement of common objectives.