France World Cup victory shows power of immigration
LONDON - France has lifted the World Cup for a second time, thanks, again, to a team that was largely composed of sons of immigrants. At a time when ethno-nationalism is rising across Europe, France’s World Cup victory sends a powerful message about the positives of immigration.
The 23-man French squad that won the World Cup on July 15 with an electrifying 4-2 decision over Croatia featured 15 players with African roots, including goal scorers Paul Pogba (born in Paris to Guinean parents) and player-of-the-tournament Kylian Mbappe (born in Paris to a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother).
As France celebrated its victory, social and political activists took to the airwaves and social media to extoll a more inclusive and cohesive social vision.
“Dear France, congratulations on winning the #WorldCup. 80% of your team is African, cut out the racism and xenophobia. 50% of your team are Muslims, cut out the Islamophobia. Africans and Muslims delivered you a second World Cup, now deliver them justice,” tweeted University of Detroit Mercy School of Law Professor Khaled Beydoun.
National identity has become increasingly fluid in football, as it has become more and more rigid in society. Nowhere is this more evident than within Pogba’s family.
His older twin brothers, Mathias and Florentin, play for the country of their birth, Guinea. Paul, born in the Lagny-sur-Marne commune of Paris after the family left Guinea for France, plays for the French national team.
The team is well aware of the unique place it holds in the hearts of a country that has seen sentiment against migrants with African roots rise and fall and rise again, depending on domestic and external political considerations.
“The diversity of the squad is in the image of this beautiful country that is France,” said French midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who was born in Toulouse to an Angolan father and a Congolese mother, before the World Cup final.
“For us, it’s superb. We are proud to represent this beautiful jersey and I think the people are also proud to have a national team like that,” Matuidi added.
“This is the France that we love,” said forward Antoine Griezmann after France’s victory against Croatia. “It’s beautiful to see it.” Griezmann represents a different less controversial immigration — his father’s family originates in Germany and his mother is a second-generation immigrant of Portuguese descent.
“There may be players who come from different origins but we do have the same state of mind. We all play for the same jersey… for our country, we give everything we have. As soon as you wear the jersey, we do everything for each other,” Griezmann said.
France’s African contingent is made up not just by the sons of immigrants but includes first-generation immigrants as well. Defender Samuel Umtiti was born in Cameroon and immigrated to France as a child. The same goes for reserve goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Like the Pogbas, the Mandanda family demonstrates the fluidity of national identity. Steve Mandada’s two younger brothers — also goalkeepers — play for the Democratic Republic of Congo national squad. Unlike their elder brother, they were born in France.
There is hope that the French squad, national heroes after claimed the World Cup’s Jules Rimet Trophy, could serve as a shining example to a country where discussions regarding migration have become increasingly toxic.
Presidential elections last year saw a far-right anti-immigrant candidate — Marine Le Pen — make it to the second round, with real fears that she could win at a time of massive migration into Europe and rising populism across the continent. Le Pen was roundly defeated by eventual winner Emmanuel Macron, who was in the stands of the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow to celebrate the French victory.
Celebrating with the team afterward, Macron was recorded in the French changing room with an arm around Pogba. “Vive Le France,” he said. “Vive Le Republique,” Pogba replied.
France’s other World Cup was in in 1998, with a similarly diverse squad, featuring midfield maestro Zinedine Zidane (born in France to Algerian parents) and defender Marcel Desailly (immigrated to France from Ghana as a child). That team was nicknamed the black-blanc-beur (black-white-Arab) and there were hopes that its victory could heal entrenching division in French society.
That failed to materialise and France is arguably just as divided now as ever before.
Does sport have the power to heal social divisions? Only time will tell.
What is certain is that the ethnically diverse French team that lifted the World Cup can only help the cause of liberte, egalite, fraternite.