World Cup 2018 went out with a bang Sunday, as France took their second title home after an intense final against Croatia.
As an avid soccer player, the World Cup is the sporting tournament I look the most forward to. Every four years, I am completely absorbed in the games for a month, my eyes glued to the television rooting for my favorite teams. And this year, the winning team meant something a bit more special to me.
France’s national football team–nicknamed “Les Bleus” – made World Cup 2018 a victory in the name of diversity across the world. 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, Muslim players take home the biggest title in the footballing world really hits home. I’ve seen players pray before the matches start and 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 compete in the U.S. Olympics, being the first Muslim-American woman to wear the hijab while competing as a member of the U.S. 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 Sunday.
In a current global community where immigrants, Muslims, and people of color 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.
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 take home a huge win, it’s quite hypocritical on France’s behalf to claim Les Bleus as their own, when the country itself has banned Muslim women from wearing the hijab and burqa in public and disproportionately segregated 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, also known as, doing nothing. French law prohibits the national census from disaggregating 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 U.S. because they 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 a title home to a country that has not fully accepted them as Frenchmen to begin with. It is self-righteous to see France praise the members of their 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 a similar stride their last World Cup victory, back in 1998. Twenty years ago, France arrived at the Cup with just as diverse of a team – captained by the brilliant Zinedine Zidane: a Muslim, Arab, and Frenchman. After the 1998 final against Brazil, commentators cheered that 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 Cup 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 has done it again, arriving to Russia 2018 with a multicultural squad with the ability to unite a fractured nation struggling to accept immigrants they view as “outsiders.
I am elated to see a team like Les Bleus be victorious. But what disappoints me is that immigrants, Muslims, and people of color 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. It takes human dignity and turns it into a competition.
It takes human dignity and turns it 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 World Cup 2018. It has been a long-winded journey towards a more inclusive, accepting world, but Sunday’s game 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 few weeks, people from thousands of different backgrounds with millions of different stories come together for one sole reason: to enjoy the sport of football together. The French squad who took the Cup home Sunday are proof that immigrants don’t drain a country’s resources, they enrich its culture. And that’s a lesson every country must learn.