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Saturday 20 April 2019
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Liberty, equality, fraternity

FOOTBALL fans all over the world, and not just the millions who lined the streets of the Champs-Elysees, celebrated France’s 4-2 victory over Croatia on Sunday. It was a fitting end to a World Cup that, more than any other, underlined the impact of immigration on our societies.

It was a riot of red, white and blue. To some extent literally, with riot police briefly having cause for concern over vandalism. But nothing could spoil a historic second title for France, made even sweeter given the diverse composition of its team.

Kylian Mbappe, the second teenager after Pele to score in a final, has an Algerian mother and a Cameroonian father. Samuel Umtiti was born in Cameroon, Steve Mandanda in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Paul Pogba’s parents are from Guinea, N’Golo Kante’s from Mali. Blaise Matuidi’s parents are from Angola and came to France via the Democratic Republic of Congo. Presnel Kimpembe and Steven Nzonzi’s fathers are Congolese. Corentin Tolisso’s father is from Togo. And so on, and so on.

The scenes of celebration were in stark contrast to the bitter acrimony of 2006 when France’s Zinedine Zidane was sent off for headbutting Italy’s Marco Materazzi after Materazzi’s verbal provocation. There was universal condemnation of Zidane’s action, but mystery lingers over what Materazzi told Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants.

Soon after the Zidane episode, the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had complained of too many black people on the French team, made it to the final round of the 2002 French presidential election. There was no hint of any of that on Sunday. There was only liberty, equality, fraternity in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe.

In stark contrast to the lack of diversity in the host country, Russia 2018 was the World Cup in which the winning team was always destined to reflect the changing face of global society. Other European teams were comprised of the descendants of immigrants or players who were themselves recent migrants, most notably Belgium, England, and Switzerland.

Of Belgium’s 23-man squad, 11 players were from migrant backgrounds, a percentage of 47.8. In England, the tally was also 11 out of 23. Eight of Switzerland’s 23 players were born abroad. Even Croatia’s largely white squad drew heavily on those with links to other countries. Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic were raised in Switzerland and Austria, respectively.

Yet, for all its symbolism France’s victory cannot be expected to end the world’s social ills, including racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. While it might help to know that half the French team was Islamic, affirmative action and a deeper shift in attitudes beyond the sport are required if a real goal is to be scored.

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