Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

SPORT: World Cup Shows Different Faces of Immigration

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Jul 12 2006 (IPS) - Anyone unfamiliar with football could be excused for asking whether Italy was playing the World Cup final with France or with a team from Africa.

All the Italian players were white, their challengers almost all black. But it was of course the French team.

Of the 22 players French coach Raymond Domenech picked for the World Cup in Germany, 14 were either born in Africa or came from families of African origin. Another, Vikash Dhorasoo, is of Indian origin but calls himself black. Yet another, David Trezeguet, has Argentinean parents.

Zinedine Zidane, the French captain and star, was born in Marseille, but his parents migrated to France from Algeria in the 1950s. Only six French World Cup players – three of them the goalkeepers – were white.

The contrasting faces of the French and Italian squads spoke of different immigration experiences, but the presence of black players in European football teams is now common. Black football players have been representing England, Portugal, Holland and even Switzerland, for some time now.

Even Germany which used to have an all-white football face now lines up players of African origin – David Odonkor and Gerald Asamoah are both of Ghanaian origin. Patrick Owomoyela, who was not picked for the World Cup, and whose father is Nigerian, is another German national player of African origin.

Two other German national players were born in Poland – Miroslav Klose and Lucas Podolsky.

Polish immigrants have played for Germany since the fifties, and Argentinean players have defended Italian and Spanish colours, but African migrants have marked an increasing presence in the wake of an upsurge of migration and radical changes in football legislation.

The black dominance of French football arises from its colonial past in Africa and the continuing French jurisdiction over some Caribbean and South Pacific territories. But that only explains a presence, not the dominance.

Paradoxically, black football players in the French team have risen because of discrimination, not despite it.

Job discrimination against blacks leaves only sport, especially football boarding schools managed by professional clubs, as the sole chance for young immigrants to get out of the dim housing projects they inhabit. Nine members of the French team grew up in Paris immigrant suburbs.

New legislation on equal opportunities has opened a gateway for footballers of African origin in Europe. And football is about all that immigrants are expected to excel at.

“In the eyes of most of the French, we immigrants are only welcome if the national team wins the World Cup,” Badir, a 22-year-old of Algerian origin from Aulnay sous Bois, a poor district some 20km northeast of Paris told IPS.

“But even if we win, after a couple of days we are back to position zero – no jobs, no housing, no chances.”

After France beat Portugal in the semi-final in Munich Jul. 5, two young immigrants ran across the most famous avenue in France, the Champs Elysees, carrying a placard that read: ‘The scum is going to bring the Cup to France! – Is it not wonderful?’

During the rioting in November 2005 involving youth of immigrant origin, minister for the interior Nicolas Sarkozy had called the rioting youth “scum”.

But France did not win the cup.

The French of foreign origin have seen that return to position zero before, when France won the World Cup in 1998. Most French players in that team came from families that had migrated from Armenia, Senegal, Ghana, Guyana, Argentina, Algeria and Portugal. The team was dubbed “blanc, black, beur”, (“white, black, Arab”).

After that multicultural team won the World Cup, it became the symbol of allegedly successful French immigration policy – for a while. “The France that wins” became the slogan of the time. It was supposed that society had come to terms with immigration.

But apart from all else, the 17 percent vote to far-right French candidate Jean Marie Le Pen in 2002 confirmed that racism remains deeply rooted in French society.

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