x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Whose side will you be on when the football starts?

For all its many faults and flaws, the World Cup offers nations an unrivalled example of the advantages of inclusion over exclusion, writes Tony Karon

Should Croatia pick striker Eduardo da Silva to play in their World Cup opener against Brazil this week, the pre-match ritual could provide an unusual spectacle: Eduardo has – according to his mother – vowed to sing both teams’ national anthems. “He’s Croatian for work,” Joelma da Silva told a Brazilian TV network. “In his heart he’s Brazilian.” The player left Rio to play for Dinamo Zagreb at 16, and three years later took Croatian citizenship. But Eduardo’s multiple affinities are hardly unique. The World Cup is a showcase of the fluidity of national identities in an age of migration and globalisation.

Dozens of Brazilian players have represented other national teams over the years. Indeed, when striker Francileudo Santos fired Tunisia to victory over Morocco in the African Cup of Nations in 2004, he momentarily forgot which country he was representing and draped himself in the Brazilian flag.

At least Diego Costa will be spared Eduardo’s anthem dilemma should Spain encounter his native Brazil at the World Cup. Many Brazilians are furious that Costa opted to represent Spain, but it’s not like he can rub it in by singing the Spanish national anthem. Why not? Because today’s Spanish national anthem has no lyrics. They were stripped out after the fall of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1977. That fact may be especially convenient, these days, when Spain’s national team is dominated by Catalans, Basques and Andalusians, players from sometime secession minded regions whose citizens resist bending to Madrid.

National flags and anthems are symbols evoking, in the imagination, a national narrative – a sense of shared destiny – although many Europeans only ever perform the rituals of nationhood when they’re watching a football match. The problem, of course, is that for European countries with a history of colonialism and ongoing political battles over immigration, national symbols don’t always unite all who today comprise, for example, France or Belgium or Portugal.

Belgium’s star striker Romelu Lukaku doesn’t typically sing when his country’s national anthem proclaiming “the king and law and liberty” is played. His roots are in Congo and Belgium’s law meant anything but liberty there.

The Portuguese national football jersey displays the symbols of Portugal’s age of “discovery” (they don’t like to call it conquest), but for the ancestors of star players like Nani, Pepe and William Carvalho, the appearance of those symbols on the horizon did not signal the onset of good times.

France striker Karim Benzema refuses to sing La Marseillaise with its lyrics about irrigating French fields with “the blood of the impure” – like the great Zinedine Zidane who also declined to sing the anthem of the country for which he won the World Cup in 1998, Benzema’s parents are from Algeria. And for Algerians, the national symbols of France symbolised colonial oppression.

But binary oppositions in national identity – you’re either French or you’re Algerian, say – are harder to sustain in this age. France has long relied on players of Algerian descent. Algeria’s squad in Brazil is dominated by players born in France. The national football teams that represent a number of European teams in Brazil are dominated by children of immigrants, and in many cases they see themselves as no less French or Belgian or Swiss with all the complexity that those identities imply – despite the efforts of far-right politicians in Europe to reverse those trends and re-embrace a past of colonial exclusion.

Switzerland may the most egregious irony: in a Europe where the only time most citizens exercise any patriotic sentiment is when their national football team is playing, Swiss national success is largely dependent on the very people the far-right “patriots” want to keep out. Swiss voters who over the past three years have voted both to cap immigration and to ban the building of minarets find themselves cheering for a national football team dominated by Muslim immigrants from the Balkans.

Fifa’s rules that allow players to represent one country all the way up to Under-21 level and another at senior level are a reflection of a post-national reality in which migration is increasingly a norm, both among the impoverished and among the highly-skilled.

The football authorities also acknowledge the complexity of the identities produced by these patterns of migration by allowing players to choose between representing the countries in which they live and work, or those of their forebears. Belgium will count themselves lucky to have the services of Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj in Brazil – the brilliant young winger’s parents were from Kosovo, and he was potentially eligible to play for England, Serbia, Turkey, Albania or even Kosovo if its FA is recognised as a national entity.

Fifa effectively recognises that nationality is a matter of choice. On June 21, Germany’s match against Ghana pits the Boateng brothers, Kevin Prince and Jerome, against one another. While Jerome plays for Germany, Kevin-Prince wears the shirt of their father’s home country, Ghana.

Fluid national boundaries and accelerated migration has its discontent, of course, which is why football stadiums in Europe have been such a magnet for racist and anti-immigrant thugs. But while it would be naïve to imagine football as a magic bullet that resolves racial and ethnic tensions, it still offers a beacon of hope – a model of how cooperation and coexistence across traditional boundaries can bring progress. For all its many faults and flaws, the World Cup offers nations an unrivalled example of the advantages of inclusion over exclusion.

Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme in International Affairs at the New School in New York