The World Cup and the Politics of Immigration

Mezut Ozil, Turkish-born player for Germany. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The 2010 World Cup Soccer (football in the rest of the world) playoffs in South Africa captivated sports fans across the globe. Several European teams with the most draconian immigration policies saw immigrant players make huge contributions.

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The World Cup produced some mercurial moments, with defending champion Italy getting the early boot, all African teams but Ghana vanquished in the first round, and longshots like Japan and Slovakia advancing to the knockout round. We’ve heaped plenty of scrutiny on England’s lack of zest, South America’s well-deserved success and France’s pathetic implosion. But the tournament also provided compelling political undercurrents that deserve
our attention.

For starters, several European countries with borderline draconian immigration policies have benefited massively from immigration. While the right wing ratchets up its anti-immigrant rhetoric, it’s immigrants who have actually helped these countries achieve World Cup success. Take Germany. Without Mesut Ozil—the son of a Turkish guest worker—whose left-footed zinger against Ghana vaulted Germany to the second round, the Germans would not only be manifestly less imaginative but would’ve been back in Deutschland early nursing hefeweizen and watching the rest of the tournament on television. Brazilian-born Cacau also injected energy into Germany’s attack after securing citizenship last spring. His striking partner, Miroslav Klose, was born in Poland as was Lukas Podolski—and both were stars in Germany’s 2006 World
Cup campaign.

In Switzerland, where the leading political party, the Union Démocratique du Centre, has pushed anti-immigrant policy and tried to outlaw the construction of minarets, Gelson Fernandes, who was born in Cape Verde, scored the gamewinner against mighty Spain while Congo-born Blaise Nkufo has provided a consistent, muscular presence up front. And where would Portugal be without their skillful Brazilian-born trifecta of Pepe the enforcer, striker Liedson, and midfield stalwart Deco whose play was pivotal in getting Portugal to South Africa in the first place? Despite racist wailings from Arizona, the U.S. squad has also benefited from immigration. Jozy Altidore—who was vital to U.S. success in this World Cup—has parents who emigrated from Haiti. Altidore regularly wears a wristband with a Haitian flag on it to acknowledge his heritage—to be sure, the wristband also has an American flag on it.

Such immigrant success on the World Cup stage has induced a wave of Orwellian doublethink, with right-wing hyper-nationalist football aficionados simultaneously holding two contradictory ideas in their skulls at the same time. Veins bulging from their necks as they root for the home team, these fans spout xenophobia by day and don the national team strip by night.

But European reactionaries and conservatives aren’t the only ones suffering from doublethink. I suffer from it, too, though in a different sense. I realize South Africa is getting reamed by FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association or International Association of Football), with record profit outflows leaving the country and extravagant stadium building prioritized over the basic needs of the citizenry. FIFA and its boosters have trotted out the standard-issue, trickle-down claptrap used to rationalize all international sporting extravaganzas. There’s also the unsavory practice of corporate sponsors fiendishly enforcing their commercial pole position, hounding ambush marketers as if they were abject murderers. All together it was red-card-abominable and I fully support the dissidents who marched against these serious injustices.