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How diverse national soccer teams challenge anti-immigrant and racialized politics in France and Germany

German player Mesut Ozil meets Angela Merkel after a World Cup game in Brazil (Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung/pool via Getty Images)
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We continue our series on politics, political science and the World Cup (12,345,  6789 , 10, and 11). Jacqueline Gehring, who previously posted on how the left and right talk differently about the ethnicity of German soccer players,  examines anti-immigrant politics and soccer in tomorrow’s quarterfinal opponents: France and Germany.

Erik Voeten

More diverse soccer clubs perform better in competition.  At the same time, recent European elections suggest that anti-immigrant attitudes are on the rise in Western Europe.  As the World Cup continues many Europeans seem to be holding two contradictory positions: They hope that their nations will field the best team possible (usually including many players of immigrant origins), but they are also worried that their teams and their societies have become too diverse.

In France and Germany, political leaders have used the diversity of their national teams as a political tool to advance their particular agendas.  Fans in each of these countries have also projected their concerns about diversity onto their national teams, celebrating diversity when the teams win and voicing their discontent with the descendants of immigrants, and immigration and integration policies when they lose.  These critiques do not apply to all of those with an immigration background (immigrants from other European Union countries or the United States are rarely criticized, for example).  Instead they are focused on those who are racialized as other, primarily those of Turkish, North African and sub-Saharan African descent.  Looking closely at how the national teams are celebrated and vilified helps us to identify the evolving politics of diversity in France and Germany.

The French national team (les bleus) won the 1998 World Cup on home soil.  The team’s diverse players led the public to nickname the team the “Black, Blanc, Beur” (Black, White, Arab).  Their victory brought together the nation and served as a rebuke to the far-right National Front party.  The national celebration of diversity was short-lived, however.  Four years after the victory, the far-right National Front presidential candidate finished second in national elections.  In 2005, riots broke out across France as racialized young people of immigrant origin responded to police brutality and inequality with violence.

By the 2010 World Cup, les bleus had become decidedly less white and more Arab and black.  When discontent with the coaching of the team led the players on the team to strike, the French public that supports strikes by white upper-middle-class workers across France attacked the players for using the same tactics.  The players were accused of being individualistic, non-assimilated, “crude and vulgar.”  The unwillingness of the players to respect their coach seemed to mirror what some French see as the unwillingness of racialized youth of immigrant origin to integrate and become fully French.  Shockingly, in response to this perceived problem, the new national team coach was caught imposing racial quotas on youth recruitment to decrease the number of racialized minorities on the national team.  In just over a decade, les bleus went from a symbol of multicultural glory to one of decay brought on by diversity, mirroring the evolution of French ethnic politics during the same time.

In Germany, the national team did not have a significant number of diverse players until 2010.  The success of the 2010 team (they finished third) led to declarations similar to those that followed the success of the 1998 French team.  During the World Cup, German Chancellor Merkel praised the team and Germany’s integration policy asserting that “it [is] impressive that a country like Germany, with its history, has become such a multicultural country that players such as Mesut Özil can be celebrated as a national hero.”  She went on to declare that the players on the national team were “role models for our whole country.  For those who are of German origin just as much as for those who want to integrate.”

Yet, like France where the success of diverse national team had a short-lived impact on national politics, pro-diversity messages quickly fell out of favor in Germany.  A book that argued that Muslim immigrants, like Özil, are destroying Germany became a bestseller just a month after the end of the 2010 World Cup.  Under increasing pressure to do something about threat of immigrants, Merkel declared that multiculturalism in Germany had “failed, utterly failed.”

It seemed as if Merkel had changed her opinion of the team, but, as my research shows, she was actually still trying to the use the success of the national team to her advantage.  Just a week before she said multiculturalism had failed she engineered a photo op with the Turkish-German star Özil after he scored a goal for the winning German team against the team of Özil’s grandparents, Turkey.  The photo of a shirtless Özil receiving Merkel’s congratulations outraged the German soccer federation’s president, who denounced Merkel for exploiting the team for her own political purposes.  Indeed, Merkel seemed to be softening the blow of her upcoming speech on multiculturalism by emphasizing that those, such as Özil, who are willing to fully ‘integrate” will be successful in Germany.

The French and German examples suggest that though politicians and the public’s support of diversity may be fickle, soccer may be an arena for counter-typical examples of racialized minorities to emerge.  During these brief nation-making moments successful diverse teams may challenge ethno-racially exclusive understanding of the nation.  It is not that German and French politicians were ever pro-diversity, but that the success of minority players who represent the nation requires the public and political leaders to (at least temporarily) reconsider racialized and anti-immigrant beliefs and rhetoric.  In this way, national teams influence understandings of racialized minorities and their place within the national community. For this reason, we should all be paying close attention to politics of diversity during the 2014 World Cup.

Jacqueline S. Gehring is an associate professor of political science at Allegheny College.  Her research focuses on the politics of diversity in Europe, and the spread of American-style legal rights to the European Union.