Now that the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup has ended, there is a lot to discuss…and I’m not talking about soccer. If we are unable to appreciate soccer as a sport  (and God knows I am)  maybe we can take a different, much valuable approach. The 2018 World Cup will be remembered not because of its appeal as a sports show, and most certainly not because of the quality of its opening ceremony. Robbie Williams has seen better times, there is no denying it.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup Champions, the France national football team, will go down in history as a token of postmodern ethnicities.

Europe is going through convulsed times. The overabundance of humanitarian crises around the world has expelled millions from their home countries: Syria, Chad, Libya, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Jordan and many more. Refugees run away en masse, the Old Continent being their promised land. As a result of the nonstop migration flows, certain European countries have responded with policies and politic demonstrations that are honestly alarming. The revival of  the extreme right in politics is a byproduct of the (sadly) recurrent terrorist attacks, and so is xenophobia. The European far right holds immigrants responsible for the upsurge of terrorism, especially in Spain, The United Kingdom and France.

Many claim that fascism is making a comeback in Europe. Overreactions aside, the far right is certainly regrouping and France is not the exception. The world watched with great concern the rise of Marine Le Pen: her anti-Islamism, anti-immigration and anti-gay marriage views, just to name a few, make Le Pen one of the strongest advocates for the ultra nationalism.

Marine Le Pen campaigned for president, but lost the 2017 election to Emmanuel Macron. Where does president Macron stand on immigration? Even though he implemented integration programs for immigrants, the president also seeks to strengthen borders security and toughen immigration laws to absorb the increasing portion of the electorate concerned with the refugees situation.

Moreover, France colonial past cannot be overlooked. During the better part of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, France laid its hands on the vast majority of the African land. Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, Madagascar, Congo – French colonies in the past, independent but starving nations in the present.

What does soccer have to do with social issues as serious as immigration, xenophobe and terrorism? Since a picture paints a thousand words, here is the France national football team. And yes, all of these players are French.

80% of the roster is of African ancestry. Only four out of 23 players have parents who were both born in continental France.
80% of the roster is of African ancestry. Only four out of 23 players have parents who were both born in continental France.

The undisputed star of the French national team is Kylian Mmbappé Lottin, born 19 years ago in Bondy, a commune in the northeastern suburbs of Paris. At this early age, he has already been labelled one of the best young players in the world (also, the second best paid). His father is from Cameroon, and his mother from Algeria. The backgrounds of Mmbapé’s teammates are eerily similar.

The slums and the outskirts are the places where the greatest athletes are found. The French sports elite come from the banlieues, the dangerous Parisian suburbs where crime and terrorism brew. The banlieues are less than seven miles away from downtown Paris, but it might as well be another world.

Remember July 15? It was a great day to be French. Minutes after the World Cup’s final match, Parisians took over the streets and celebrated the victory for hours on end. It was time to rejoice, to forget troubles for a while.

French citizens celebrate in Paris.
French citizens celebrate in Paris.

Sports do provide a chance, just like arts or education. They are a means for the incredibly talented but incredibly disadvantaged, just like Mmbapé, to make a name for themselves Notwithstanding, the Western world worships success and it’s willing to endure some paradoxes as long as it means winning. The most frequent claim against immigrants is the perennial ‘they steal our jobs’, therefore ‘our money’. Strangely, this does not keep Europeans from paying big bucks for soccer tickets. They line up outside the stadiums for hours, and gladly, because they are in for a good show. It doesn’t matter if Mmbapé is black, or came from the slums – he is a heck of a player. With him in the field, victory is granted.

A lot of questions come to mind. When is it fine to be an immigrant? What does being French mean? When is one French, or any nationality for that matter? Do ‘these people’ bring glory to a nation? Or do they bring damnation, the exact opposite? The answer: it all depends. History has taught us that foreigners or racial minorities are a society’s favorite scapegoat. Aliens can be conveniently held responsible for whatever disfunctional aspect a nation may posess, whenever it suits the agendas of those in power. Said nation may also take advantage of whatever superior trait the ‘intruders’ have, like a superior athletic capacity.

The image of President Macron celebrating the victory of the national soccer team went viral, and not only because  heads of state losing their composure is a rare sight. During his first year in office, Emmanuel Macron denied asylum to more than 85,000 refugees. He has also backed the violent actions of the military at the borders, claiming they were ‘necessary’.

President-Macron

Macron’s fist in the air embodies the mirage of a national unity that is being endangered by fear, hate and prejudice. Today, France is the land of contradictions: people in the streets supporting the closure of the borders; people in the streets celebrating the victory of a national selection formed by the sons of un-nationals; crowds of refugees seeking for asylum against a barbed wire fence; crowds of fans outside soccer stadiums, desperate for a ticket. People are people, Depeche Mode would say. So…why should it be?

Beggars became kings overnight because soccer offered an out. Now the overlooked are finally looked up to, which is yet another paradox. Sports glamorize ethnicity but also provide an excellent opportunity to reflect on much deeper topics, such as identity and globalization. As borders become porous, nationality transforms into this fluid state that is (and has to be) in constant development.