“When things were going well, I was reading newspaper articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”
This is what the Manchester United striker had to say in the The Players’ Tribune piece on the eve of the World Cup. But then Lukaku is far from being the only one in this diverse Belgium squad to have his roots elsewhere.
Marouane Fellaini was born to Moroccan parents in Etterbeek, after father Abdellatif had signed for Racing Mechelen but was unable to secure the paperwork for his release from the Moroccan club Hassania Agadir.
Nacer Chadli played one game for his native Morocco but would later switch allegiances and represent Belgium at two World Cups. Moussa Dembele was born to Malian-Flemish parents in Antwerp.
Multi-culturalism is the order of the day
There are others who have moved from fellow European countries. Yannick Carrasco, was born to a Portuguese father and a Spanish mother and now plies his trade at Dalian Yifang in China. Adnan Januzaj’s father, Abedin hails from Kosovo and moved to avoid conscription by the Yugoslav People’s Army.
France’s eventual victory at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday evening might have been a grand advert for multi-culturalism, but in truth, many a side at the World Cup would not have been in Russia without the presence of those who were born outside their respective nations or those whose parents/grandparents have decided to move there out of sheer necessity.
Another semi-finalist, England, which witnessed a vitriolic ‘Brexit’ campaign, saw immigration from the European Union, drop to a 5-year low recently. While the political establishment back home collapsed, England’s football team led by the immensely-likable Gareth Southgate sought change on and off the field.
While immigration became a central theme of the 2016 referendum as the ‘Leave’ campaign insisted that reduced migration would ease pressure on public services and utilities and aid the growth in wages of British workers, several migrants or children of migrants – Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker – represented their country with distinction.
The English football team, disliked by many an aficionado over the years, partly due to post-colonial angst and partly due to the presence of footballers perceived as prima donnas, has struggled to shed this particular image but the class of 2018 represented a sea of change from the usual. Southgate himself spoke of affecting change beyond the football field and their semi-final run united a nation at a time where the powers that be seem to be lurching from one crisis to another.
Immigrants head back with a wealth of knowledge
It wasn’t just the European nations, 61% of Morocco’s squad were born outside the country, making it the highest proportion among any nation at the World Cup.
Some of Senegal’s squad had played for France at the youth levels and had even won the Under-20 World Cup alongside Paul Pogba and Samuel Umtiti before returning to their native African nation.
Daniel Arzani, who set the Australian A-League alight in the second half of the season, became the youngest player to feature for the Socceroos in Russia. Of Iranian descent, the Melbourne City forward has been compared to the likes of Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell.
William Troost-Ekong, the Nigerian defender with a Dutch mother, won a bronze medal with the Super Eagles after switching from the Netherlands Under-20’s and was the only man to play every minute of the World Cup qualifiers for his team. Japan’s Gotuku Sakai was born to a German mother in New York.
Not only are immigrants playing for the Belgiums, Frances and Englands, they also play in other leagues and countries before returning to their original homes, bringing a wealth of football knowledge with them.
Change is glacial
In hindsight, the optimism around the victory of France’s ‘Black, Blanc, Beur’ (Black, White, north African) generation in 1998 was short-lived. It did boost president Jacques Chirac’s popularity as he went on to defeat the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential elections but those who expected it to unite a fractured society were left confounded.
In 2006, Lilian Thuram, the 34-year-old centre-back and one of 16 non-whites in Raymond Domenech’s squad had rebutted Le Pen’s assertions in 1998 and repeated in ‘06 that the French side was not reflective of the country’s ethnic make-up and that Domenech had perhaps ‘exaggerated the proportion of players of colour and should have been a bit more careful.’
After his side’s 3-1 victory over Spain, Thuram had reflected on the National Front Leader’s statements in the post-match conference. “What can I say about Monsieur Le Pen? Clearly, he is unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown. I think that reflects particularly badly on a man who has aspirations to be president of France but yet clearly doesn’t know anything about French history or society.”
In Russia, 17 of the team belonged to a migrant background and they were right at the heart of the triumph that president Emmanuel Macron was desperately hoping for. Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and gang may have become the faces of this triumph two decades after an Algerian Muslim face had carried France to its first-ever World Cup glory.
Thousands of Les Bleus supporters had cheered them on in India as well, where the law on immigrants playing for national teams is more complicated. Allowed since 2008, a government ruling in 2010 had later stated that players with only Indian passports would be allowed to represent the country.
Arata Izumi gave up his Japanese citizenship and received an Indian passport, thus becoming eligible to play for the football team, going on to make 9 appearances between 2013 and ‘14. Aryn Williams, Neroca FC medio, had recently spoken about his interest in giving up his Australian and British passports and applying for an Indian one in order to become eligible for the national team before the Asian Cup.
Immigration, seen in the context of globalisation, has played its part in bringing the footballing world closer while polarising the political landscape. The neutral would be hard pressed to argue that the beautiful game wouldn’t be poorer without the presence of multi-ethnic diversity on the pitch and in the stands.