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The World Cup and the Politics of Immigration

The World Cup has produced some mercurial moments, with defending champions 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 has 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 long ago would’ve been back in Deutschland nursing hefeweizen and watching the rest of the tournament on television. Brazilian-born Cacau has 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 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 US squad has also benefited from immigration. Jozy Altidore—who was vital to US 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-nationalists 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, 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’s red-card-abominable and I fully support the dissidents who are marching against these serious injustices.

And yet my heart can’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 these final days of the World Cup, I’ll be relishing the luscious mélange of teamwork, individual skill, and artistry that only football can deliver. But I’m also hoping that a big-name footballer will 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 US Olympic team in international matches. He is an associate professor of Political Science at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. He can be reached at: boykoff@pacificu.edu

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