Brexit, immigrants in football, and the hypocrisy surrounding it

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Syrian boys play football in Suruc refugee camp on March 25, 2015 in Suruc, Turkey.

© Getty Images

Brexit, immigrants in football, and the hypocrisy surrounding it

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Amlan Majumdar

06/25/2016

As the value of Sterling plunges, stock markets keep falling across the world, and reports flock in that most of the people responsible for this charade are still googling what they had actually voted for, David Cameron must be questioning life, the universe and everything else, while sipping over Assam-imported tea in his last few days at 10 Downing Street. A nation which had invaded and colonized other lands for centuries in the past had just voted to leave the European Union in morbid fear of invading foreigners—such is the way of life.

A nation which had invaded and colonized other lands for centuries in the past had just voted to leave the European Union in morbid fear of invading foreigners—such is the way of life.

“The sun has risen on an independent United Kingdom," Nigel Farage, the United Kingdom Independent (UKIP) Party Leader, said after the result of the UK referendum was published. His voice, and the result, resonated across Europe, and now Denmark politicians have called for a referendum, while Italy, France, and Holland are expected to join them soon.

If UK has their UKIP, Germany has the anti-immigration Pegida movement and the Alternative für Deutschland, while Switzerland has the Swiss People's Party (SVP). Different names, similar agendas.

It is a new world out there–one which is returning to its primitive ways - ways of xenophobia, racism, and ultra-nationalism. Leaders across the world are exploiting inherent human trait of fear. As Matt Haig wrote in Reasons to stay alive, “How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration". This of course in spite of the fact of how common immigration is in human history - right from the last Ice Age, to transatlantic slave trade of 12 million Africans to America, to the immigration and resettlement of around 20 million people after the end of the World War II, the immigration that took place in India after the partition of 1947 to the mass immigration that is currently underway in China.

These immigrations challenge the man-made concepts of nationality and political boundaries. Since 2015, civil war, terrorism and poverty has seen European nations experience one of the biggest influxes of immigrants and refugees in recent times from the likes of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Mediterranean Sea has turned into a passageway into a 'safer' place for these people.

Depressingly, though, football, which despite its hallowed status has always been affected by social reforms, might never be the same as well. This 'uprising' against immigrants has dug its claw in the beautiful game and the scar could be everlasting.

Last month, the Pegida movement supporters protested against Kinder Chocolate Bars for replacing the blue-eyed blond boys on their package with 'offending' pictures of children of African and middle-eastern origin. However, soon they had to apologize for their dissent after it was revealed that the pictures were childhood images of German internationals Jerome Boateng and Ilkay Gundogan. The hypocrisy was unmissable, and staring right into our eyes.

There was no respite for the Bayern Munich defender Boateng though, as a few days later, a leader of the Alternative für Deutschland party said that, “While most people admired the international footballer Jérôme Boateng, they wouldn’t want to live next door to him”. After a lot of criticism, he did retract his statement and tweeted, “Jérôme Boateng is a great footballer and rightly part of the German national team. I am looking forward to the Euros”.

Germany are not alone, however. Switzerland, who have been famously neutral over political issues and were known for their religious tolerance, have been making the headlines for the wrong reasons. The Swiss People's Party is seeking sterner limitations on immigration, however, they would not even have a proper national football team without the immigrants.

Back in the 2014 World Cup, 14 of Switzerland's 23-man squad were immigrants. Most of them are from Kosovo, a disputed territory who declared independence from Serbia only recently in 2008.

This immigration of Kosovo Albanians has had massive impact on Switzerland's football, among many other things. When Switzerland qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1994 for the first time since 1966, they were knocked out in the round of 16 by Spain. In that match, Switzerland had just one player in the starting lineup who was not born in the nation—Christophe Ohrel. Eight years later, when they qualified once again, they had five players in their starting lineup, who had dual citizenship or had foreign lineage.

Of the 11 players who started in the 1-0 win over Albania in Switzerland's opening game of Euro 2016, nine players had their roots elsewhere.

It is now that we are witnessing the full effect of the huge immigration during the breakup of Yugoslavia on the Switzerland's national football team. Of the 11 players who started in the 1-0 win over Albania in Switzerland's opening game of Euro 2016, nine players had their roots elsewhere.

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Admir Mehmedi, Blerim Dzemaili, Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami, and Haris Seferovic were all born in regions which belonged to Yugoslavia, when it existed. Striker Haris Seferovic's family had immigrated to Switzerland from Bosnia and Herzegovina back in the 1980s, which was also under Yugoslavia back then. The two exceptions were—Ricardo Rodriguez, who was born to a Spanish father and a Chilean mother, and Johan Djourou, who was born in Ivory Coast.

Yet, a nation which is now striving for sterner border control, celebrated on the streets of Zurich, when this team of immigrants secured Switzerland's first-ever place in the knockout rounds of the Euro.

As did the German supporters, when their team lifted the World Cup in 2014. Yet, Germany had six players in that World Cup winning squads, who have roots elsewhere. Mesut Ozil is a Turkish descendent, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose were born in Poland, Sami Khedira's father is Tunisian, Shkodran Mustafi was born in an Albanian family, while Jerome Boateng's father is a Ghanaian.

The hypocrisy surrounding this is too prominent. These immigrants are celebrated and hailed as heroes when they are on the football field, winning glory for their adopted nation, while off the field people with similar roots, and lesser names, are treated with disdain.

It is not just Germany and Switzerland though. Communal tension has increased in France since the riots of 2005, 2007, and the Charlie Hebdo shooting last year. Yet, back in 1998, it was the son of an Algerian worker who was celebrated as a national hero. When Zinedine Zidane guided that French team, a team known as the 'black, blanc, beur', to the World Cup title with a squad drawn together from North Africa, West Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific islands, Armenia and the Basque region, it ensued wildest celebrations on the streets of Paris since the Axis powers' forces were driven off it. France is a melting pot of cultures, which it sometimes refuses to accept, and that World Cup triumph was an ode to that multiculturalism.

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About 800 kms south of France is the old Italian city of Turin. The picturesque city is home to one of the biggest football clubs in Europe, Juventus. In 2008, Juventus fans racially abused Mario Balotelli, an Italian U21 international back then, who is the son of a Ghanaian immigrant. The flamboyant, and controversial striker, would go on to face a lot of such abuses throughout his career, and he is not an exception as well. Racism has a deep root in Italian football, which is surprising considering their proud tradition of Oriundi.

When Inter Milan striker Eder made it to the starting lineup of the Italian team during their first match of the Euro 2016 against Belgium, he joined the long list of 'Oriundi' who have served the Azzurri so well on big tournaments over the years.

“The Oriundi are the new Italians,” Cesare Prandelli said a couple of years back, when his team lined up with three such players during a 1-0 defeat to Spain in a friendly.

It is a term used to describe foreign (mostly South American) players of Italian descent. Inter Milan striker Ermanno Aebi was the first name on that list. Aebi had a Swiss father and an Italian mother, and he made a name for himself by scoring a hat-trick during Italy's 9-4 win over France on his debut in 1920.

Seven Oriundi have won the World Cup with Italy. Luis Monti was the first, while former Juventus midfielder Mauro Camoranesi was the last to do so in 2006.

Yet, time and again racism has surfaced its ugly head in Italian football. Not only towards foreign players who ply their tread in that country, but also towards immigrants. However, football fights back, and the amazing story of the Koa Bosco team is a wonderful glimpse of what this sport is capable of achieving.

Koa Bosco is an Italian club which was formed in 2013, and it was a team made up of refugees from Ghana, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Sudan. These immigrants have risked their lives to cross over to that nation on rickety boats to escape war, poverty, or simply to stay alive.

But, the life they received in the new nation was not much better as well. They were looked down upon by the natives, and they found it hard to even get a job. The football club was formed to draw attention towards the plight of these immigrants, and they joined the bottom tier of Italy's league pyramid.

Like they did in the streets and alleys, Koa Bosco's players suffered from racists taunts on the football pitch as well. However, they fought through it, and amazingly, they managed to achieve promotion from their league last year. It was nothing less than a miracle.

If not for immigrants, France would not have had Zinedine Zidane and his World Cup heroics, Sweden would not have had Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the moments of magic he has produced over the years, while Germany would have lost out on their top scorer of all time—Miroslav Klose.

Football will not have stories like that of Koa Bosco without immigrants. It would not have had a story of two brothers—Granit Xhaka and Taulant Xhaka—facing each other when Switzerland took on Albania earlier in the group stage of this Euro. One representing his homeland, the other representing his new home. If not for immigrants, France would not have had Zinedine Zidane and his World Cup heroics, Sweden would not have had Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the moments of magic he has produced over the years, while Germany would have lost out on their top scorer of all time—Miroslav Klose.

Sir Geoff Hurst is the hero of England's proudest moment in football. He was the top scorer in the 1966 World Cup, the scorer of a hat-trick in the final against West Germany, and one of the few footballers to receive knighthood. His mother's family was originally from Germany though, and without immigration, England would not have had one of the few things they can brag about.

Yet, all these have been swept under the carpet. All those moments when these nations celebrated and took pride in these immigrant's accomplishments on the field are being forgotten. These are just footnotes now, as we head into a future where the boundaries are more pronounced, and a world more divided than ever.

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