The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Europe’s top soccer teams reflect the power of multiculturalism

The French soccer team poses for photographers before a match against Cameroon on May 30 in Nantes, France. (David Vincent/Associated Press)

It's no news that there are worries about immigration and multiculturalism in Europe.

Over the past year, an unprecedented influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa has convulsed politics in a host of major European countries. Terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris have stoked fears of Islamist infiltration and the radicalization of minority communities. Far-right parties across the continent have gained ground amid rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

This week, though, a very different vision of Europe will go on display. The Euro 2016 soccer championships, perhaps the biggest tournament in global soccer aside from the World Cup, will start in France on Friday. It will pit 24 national teams against one another in a month-long showcase. And some of the highest-profile squads reflect national cultures that are defined not by narrow identities but by diversity and immigration.

Consider Germany, the recent World Cup champions: The playmaker pulling the strings is Mesut Ozil, a practicing Muslim born to Turkish parents. Or Sweden, whose maverick talisman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is the son of Bosnian Muslim refugees. Or Switzerland, where a majority of the team’s starting players are the children of immigrants or exiles from Balkan wars. Or Belgium, whose captain is half Congolese, whose midfield tyro is half Indonesian and whose entire strike force is made up of the products of African immigration.

Or just look at the host country, France. The French are hotly tipped as the tournament's favorite. And they sit at the top of the list of a recently published index of the teams' multiculturalism. A majority of the French team has roots outside France's continental borders, from places as far-flung as the Indian Ocean island of Reunion to the Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe and many countries in between.

Soccer in France, as Duke University's Laurent Dubois notes, has become "a terrain of incredible political investment and symbolic meaning," beginning perhaps most noticeably with the country's triumph in the 1998 World Cup. That famous side was led by Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, and a vanguard of other players with origins in France's former colonies.

The national team was hailed as the emblem of French multiculturalism. Thierry Henry, the legendary French forward whose parents emigrated from the Caribbean and who grew up in the rough-and-tumble environs of Paris, recalled an elderly women embracing him and thanking him for giving the country its greatest moment since liberation from the Nazis.

"That's when I realized how powerful sport is," he said later in an interview, "even if I don't completely understand it."

But the rosy picture didn't stick. When France stumbled and collapsed in subsequent tournaments, the specter of racial divisions and discord was raised. Nationalist politicians groused against a purported lack of patriotism in the squad, a theme echoed in countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium, as well.

The current tournament, despite the optimism surrounding France, also has been shadowed by racial controversy. Because of a tawdry investigation involving a sex tape and an alleged case of blackmail, the country's best striker, Karim Benzema, was excluded from the squad by coach Didier Deschamps.

Angry about his omission, Benzema, who is of Algerian heritage, claimed that Deschamps had "bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France," referring to the French far right, led by the ascendant National Front. "He has to know that in France, the extremist party reached the second round in the last two elections," Benzema said.

That prompted scorn from National Front politicians. Marion Le Pen, the granddaughter of the party's founder, tweeted that if the striker wasn't happy, he should go play for "his country" — a reference to Algeria, not France.

"This is not a good debate for France," Prime Minister Manuel Valls cautioned.

There are similar unseemly conversations elsewhere. Last month, as WorldViews noted, a far-right German political movement complained when a beloved chocolate brand featured the non-Teutonic faces of a Turkish and an African boy on the candy's wrappers.

“They don’t stop at anything,” the anti-Islam, anti-immigration group Pegida said on its Facebook page. “Can you really buy them like that, or is that a joke?”

What the bigots didn't realize was that the photos in question were childhood snaps of two beloved German soccer players — Jerome Boateng, whose father came from Ghana, and Ilkay Gundogan, a midfielder of Turkish origin.

Of course, the diversity of a national team isn't a reflection of the harmony of a nation. The Euro 2016 tournament will take place in the shadow of terrorism. Indeed, the gruesome Islamic State attacks in Paris in November were aimed in part at disrupting a friendly match between France and Germany, and security concerns linger.

The bombings earlier this year in Brussels had a profound effect on Vincent Kompany, the thoughtful captain of Belgium's national team. Kompany grew up in the largely poor, predominantly immigrant neighborhoods of the capital that have now come under scrutiny for their perceived ghettoization.

"The reason why it hurt me so much is because they're not people of a religious faction, they're people that have been able to fall off the grid, and people have been able to indoctrinate them," Kompany said in an interview with CNN.

When he speaks, people listen.

"The Belgian national team has joined the king as a true, national institution," Dubois writes. "The team is beloved not just for its successes on the field but also because its diversity represents Belgium as it is today."

But that doesn't resolve the country's challenges. "I think it was inevitable," Kompany said about the Brussels attacks, "because I only used to see politicians in our neighborhoods once every six years when they needed to come for votes."

At a time when arguments about refugees are dominating the political conversation, it may be worth considering the case of Taulant and Granit Xhaka. The two brothers were born in Switzerland after their Kosovar-Albanian parents moved to the country to escape war. But Saturday, the pair will face off against each other: Granit wearing the Swiss colors and Taulant clad in those of Albania.

Is the clash of siblings a problem? Not at all, their father, Ragip, said in an interview with Albanian media.

"I am the happiest father in the world at this moment," he said. "Both my sons will be playing in the Euro championship."

More on WorldViews

20 world leaders who explain the English Premier League

20 historical empires that explain the English Premier League

20 World Cup goals that changed history

How Israeli soccer hooligans fan the flame of hate