x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The race to the World Cup

This summer's World Cup finals promises to be the most diverse in its history. Simon Kuper examines how the tournament has broken down racial and ethnic barriers

The multiracial make-up of France's World Cup winning side in 1998 is illustrated here before their semi-final against Croatia.
The multiracial make-up of France's World Cup winning side in 1998 is illustrated here before their semi-final against Croatia.

Whenever Matthew Booth, the giant South African defender, touches the ball at this World Cup, the home fans will shout, "Booooooooooooth!" During the Confederations Cup last summer, this habit confused many foreign journalists. Some of them, spotting that Booth was the only white regular in South Africa's side, and that the fans were almost all black, concluded that racist fans were booing poor Booth. The Spanish newspaper El Pais spoke of its "sadness" at this supposed intolerance.

In fact the foreigners were wrong: South Africa's fans were cheering Booth. They love him, just as a decade ago they loved the country's white defender Mark Fish, whom they urged on with cries of "Fiiiiiiiiish!" while waving fishes in the air. A modern World Cup is an image of a better world, a place where hardly anyone cares about skin colour or ethnicity. In fact the tournament strangely resembles Nelson Mandela's vision for South Africa: a nonracial Rainbow Nation.

Many of the teams at this tournament - South Africa, France, even North Korea - will be much more ethnically mixed than their countries back home. All the colours blend at World Cups, and few people seem to mind. Perhaps every country suffers racial tensions of some sort - just tour the tower blocks full of non-white people on the fringes of Paris, or Amsterdam, or Chicago - yet these tensions are barely apparent at the biggest tournament in football.

So why is the tournament so diverse? And given that the competition is the planet's biggest media event, does their diversity change anything in the real world? If black South Africans can cheer for Booth, and white French people can regularly vote Zinedine Zidane, a Muslim of Arab origin, as most popular Frenchman, does that break down divides in South Africa and France? From its very start the World Cup was more than a mere festival of nationalism. In the first tournament, in 1930, Luis Monti starred for his country Argentina; in the second, he won the trophy with Italy, the original homeland of his immigrant parents. In fact Italy's squad in 1934 included five players who had grown up abroad.

But whatever the roots of the players at the first few tournaments, they almost all had one thing in common: white skin. The African and Asian continents rarely featured. The only Asian team to play in the first few tournaments was the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1938, which consisted mostly of colonial Dutchmen, and lost their only match 6-0 to Hungary. Only in 1974 did Zaire become the first sub-Saharan African team at the tournament.

The few blacks who featured in the first 50 years of the tournament's history played mostly for Brazil. The country's racial divides are stark, and even the Brazilians were long wary of selecting blacks. When Barbosa, the black Brazilian keeper, made an error in the final of 1950, helping Uruguay to win, it prompted a taboo on black goalkeepers in the national side that lasted about 50 years. Brazil's silent limit on black outfield players fell at the World Cup of 1958. The Canarinho had begun the tournament against Austria with only one black player, Didi. Their third match, against the USSR, was "the moment that Brazil darkened," writes Alex Bellos in his book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life. A 17-year-old black player named Pele entered the side, as did a little winger of mixed black and Indian descent named Garrincha. Brazil went on to become "the first fully multiracial team to win a World Cup," writes Bellos. They have not looked back since.

Today much of the diversity comes from black and brown players representing European countries. However, that's a relatively new development. Most western Europeans took in large numbers of non-white immigrants only from the 1950s, and it took another generation before the children of these non-whites began playing professional football. Only in 1979 did Viv Anderson become the first black man to play for England, for instance.

The German winners and Dutch losers of 1974, the Italian winners of 1982, and even the German winners of 1990 were all white. Barely a player in any of those teams had roots outside the country he played for. A rare exception was Rainer Bonhof, a German of Dutch descent, who had a Dutch passport until he was 17 and whose cross for West Germany's second goal helped bury Holland in the final in 1974.

Mono-ethnic World Cup winning teams ended forever in 1998. France won that tournament with a team that belted out the national anthem with their arms around each other, but in which almost every player looked totally different from his neighbour. Zidane's father had been a construction worker from Algeria, Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira were born in Africa, Lilian Thuram in Guadeloupe, Bixente Lizarazu was from the Basque region between Spain and France, Christian Karembeu from the Pacific island of New Caledonia.

Youri Djorkaeff was of Armenian origin, and there were even a couple of token white Frenchmen like Laurent Blanc and Emmanuel Petit. That team finally inspired Germany to seek players among its own immigrants. Like Brazil in 1958, the Germans belatedly went multiracial. Their team in South Africa should include the new Germans Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski (who speak Polish together), the ethnically Turkish playmaker Mesut Ozil, and Jerome Boateng, who hopes to figure in the match against his father's country Ghana.

These men will play in what may be the most diverse World Cup ever. By now several England players and most of the French team are non-white. France's Franck Ribery is a convert to Islam while the Dutch captain, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, is of Indonesian origin. Only two big western European teams, Spain and Italy, remain white, and soon they will darken too. About seven per cent of Italy's population and more than 10 per cent of Spain's are immigrants, and in younger age groups the proportions are much higher.

It is popularly believed that the reason so many black players represent predominantly white countries is that blacks are, genetically, more athletically gifted than whites. In fact, health researchers say the question of whether any people of African origin have genetic sporting advantages is still unresolved. Clearly not all Africans have these advantages. The genetic variety inside Africa is immense.

Steve Jones, the British geneticist, famously observed that people in one Kenyan village may have more of their genes in common with Danes, say, than with people in the next Kenyan village. In any case, if it were true that blacks in general had better sporting genes than whites, then Africa would surely do better at sport. It remains possible that people from some regions of Africa may have genetic variants that help them in sport.

Geneticists now believe that more than 200 genes play a role in fitness and performance. It may turn out that some of the beneficial genetic variants are over represented in some ethnic groups. For now, we can say with more confidence that children of immigrants are well represented in European national teams because of the circumstances in which they grow up. Some of the best footballers in Europe are indeed black, but far more European stars have something else in common: they come from the poorest neighbourhoods in the continent.

That applies, for instance, to Zidane, Drogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. It cannot be that poor Europeans have an unquenchable hunger to succeed. If that were so, they would do better at school and in jobs outside football, there must be something about their childhood that makes them particularly well-suited to the sport. That reason is practice. The American author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, mooted the "10,000 hour-rule".

This notion from psychology says that to achieve expertise in any field - whether making music or writing novels or even becoming a master criminal - you need at least 10,000 hours of practice. In football it is the poorest European boys (many of whom are of course immigrants) who are most likely to reach the 10,000-hour mark. They tend to live in small flats which forces them to spend time outdoors. There they meet a ready supply of local boys equally keen to play football.

Their parents are less likely than middle-class parents to make them waste precious time doing homework. And they have less money for other leisure pursuits. A constant in football players' ghosted autobiographies is the monomaniac childhood spent playing non-stop football and, in a classic story, sleeping with a ball. By the time these boys are 15, they are much better players than suburban kids.

The 10,000-hour rule also explains why blacks raised in American ghettos are prominent in basketball and American football. Immigrants are one source of diversity at World Cups; diasporas continue to be another. Diasporas is any movement of a population sharing common national and/or ethnic identity. Small countries spend increasing amounts of energy scouring their diasporas in the search for players but the big nations also benefit too. Mauro Camoranesi, an oriundo (an immigrant of native ancestry) from Argentina, won the World Cup with Italy in 2006; and Giuseppe Rossi, from a suburb of New York, hopes to repeat Camoranesi's trick this year. In the tug-of-war over diaspora players, the US usually loses out. In Rossi's case, Italy's gain is the US's loss.

sports@thenational.ae