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.

Share this

And yet my heart couldn’t but help get fully immersed in the ups and downs of this World Cup. Sure, I love the game of football, but I also believe football players have the potential to press us collectively toward a more just society. Terry Eagleton recently wrote, “for the most part football these days is the opium of the people, not to speak of their crack cocaine.” The subtle key to that passage is “for the most part.” In fact, numerous footballers themselves have sliced against this zeitgeist, engaging in a wide array of charity work. Holland’s Dirk Kuyt runs a foundation that makes sport more available to the disabled. Joseph Yobo of Nigeria has done significant social-uplift work with youth in the Niger Delta, doling out more than 300 educational scholarships. Fellow Super Eagle Nwanko Kanu runs a foundation for people with heart ailments.

But charity work is not the same thing as taking a strong, public stand on controversial issues like immigration or war, let alone engaging in social-justice activism. Due to the hyper-commercialized nature of football, players don’t want to alienate sponsors (existing or potential), aggravate team owners and administrators, or deflect the venom of fans who screech that they should just shut up and play. It makes more sense to go the route of David Beckham, becoming a one-size-fits-all, polysemic athlete who spectators can read in any way they wish.

Yet I can’t let go of the glimmering hope that footballers could speak out. You may be mumbling to yourself that the odds of this happening are about as good as those of French coach Raymond Domenech being named World Cup Manager of the Year. But players have moved beyond charity work in the past, with Didier Drogba employing his football acumen as a platform to help reconcile political factions in the Ivory Coast.

And sportswriter Dave Zirin is right: “Sport is, at the end of the day, like a hammer. And you can use a hammer to bash someone over the head or you could use it to construct something beautiful.
It’s in the way that you use it.” In the final days of the World Cup, I relished the luscious mélange of teamwork, individual skill and artistry that only football can deliver. But I was also hoping that a big-name footballer would brandish his socio-political hammer to build something bigger than himself and indeed bigger than the FIFA World Cup Trophy.

Jules Boykoff is a former professional soccer player who represented the U.S. Olympic team in international matches. He is an associate professor of Politics and Government at Pacific. A version of this article first appeared in CounterPunch.com.