For a month, people from hundreds of different countries with millions of different stories come together for one reason: to enjoy football together.
As an avid football player, the World Cup is the sporting event I look forward to the most. Every four years, I am completely absorbed in the games for a month, my eyes glued to the TV rooting for my favorite teams. And this year, the winning team meant something a bit more special to me.
The French national football team — nicknamed Les Bleus — made the World Cup a victory in the name of diversity. Of the 23-man squad, 19 players are immigrants or the sons of immigrants, 15 have roots in Africa and seven are Muslim.
This year’s winners hold a special place in my heart. As a Muslim woman and the daughter of immigrants, seeing a squad of primarily immigrant and Muslim players take home the biggest title in the footballing world really hits home. I’ve seen players pray before the matches start and prostrate after scoring goals. It’s surreal to see them praying through every moment of their lives, as I do.
How I feel seeing Les Bleus win is similar to how I felt seeing Ibtihaj Muhammad represent the US at the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, being the first Muslim-American woman to wear a hijab while competing as a member of the US fencing team. In a way, I saw a part of myself in her. And in a way, I see a part of myself in the French squad who were victorious in Moscow.
In the current global community where immigrants, Muslims and ethnic minorities are demonized nearly daily, it’s refreshing to see us celebrated. It’s invigorating to see so many people tracing back the roots of a team whose identities are typically treated with hostility.
Climate in France
But that’s not to say this diverse team is a hallmark of France’s outstanding dedication to welcoming immigrants and embracing diversity. Despite how revitalizing it might seem to see such a multicultural team win on the world’s biggest stage, it’s hypocritical on France’s behalf to claim Les Bleus as its own, when the country itself has banned Muslim women from wearing a niqab in public and disproportionately segregating ethnic minorities in public housing complexes in French suburban areas. France has a short history of immigration, only accepting major waves of immigrants over the last 80 years, but the country has deep roots in colonialism and a fierce sense of nationalism, driving racist and xenophobic policies.
France’s approach to its jarring racism and discrimination is that of color-blindness — aka, doing nothing. French law prohibits the national census from collecting data by race or ethnicity; everyone is simply, French. And while everyone in the country is “French,” citizens who find ancestral roots in France absorb themselves in French nationalism so much to the point that the immigrant persona is that of an “outsider” in their country.
Racism in France runs differently than in the US because the French believe an absence of color is the best way address the issue. But a color-blind approach is equivalent to ignoring the issue completely, and ignoring an issue prevents a solution from surfacing.
Now, Les Bleus have conquered the World Cup, bringing the trophy home to a country that has not fully accepted all the players as Frenchmen to begin with. It is self-righteous to see France praise members of the football team who would otherwise be treated as second-class citizens if it were not for their ability to conquer the world’s most-watched sporting event.
The French national team made similar strides in their last World Cup victory, back in 1998. Twenty years ago, France had just as diverse of a team, which was spearheaded by the brilliant Zinedine Zidane — a Frenchman of Muslim and Algerian origin. After the final against Brazil, commentators said the French flag should be changed from blue, red and white to “black, blanc et beur,” or black, white and Arab. But France’s win at the in 1998 remained just that — its diverse team had no impact on the country’s ongoing grapple with embracing the immigrant persona.
Twenty years later, the French squad have done it again, arriving in Russia with a multicultural team that had the ability to unite a fractured nation struggling to accept immigrants they view as “outsiders.”
Football brings us together
I am elated to see a team like Les Bleus emerge victorious. But what disappoints me is that immigrants, Muslims and minorities shouldn’t have to accomplish phenomenal feats to be treated as human or gain the respect and compassion of their home countries. We should be treated as humans simply because we are human. But instead, there’s something to prove, and there has to be a reason why we deserve respect and compassion as if being human isn’t enough. Human dignity has turned into a competition.
Yet amongst the stormy political climate currently engulfing our global community, I see a glimmer of hope and promise in the results of the 2018 World Cup. It has been a long-winded journey toward a more inclusive, accepting world, but the final between France and Croatia was a way to bring us all together, despite any differences.
That’s the beauty in sports. These competitions are more than just games. The World Cup is more than just a title. For a month, people from hundreds of different countries with millions of different stories come together for one reason: to enjoy football.
The French squad are proof that immigrants do not drain a country’s resources — they enrich its culture. And that’s a lesson every country must learn.
*[A version of this article was originally published by RVA Mag.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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