The euphoria triggered by the FIFA World Cup quickly gave way to divisive, ugly debates about national identity and race, around players of diverse ethnic origins. These controversies highlight the need for measured exchanges on belonging in today’s Europe, writes Michael O’Flaherty.
Michael O’Flaherty is director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).
For four weeks this summer, football cast its powerful spell, providing breath-taking entertainment and a welcome escape from everyday concerns.
The World Cup also showcased Europe’s growing cultural and religious diversity, and provided fantastic examples of players coming together, irrespective of colour or creed, to pursue their common dream of lifting the FIFA World Cup trophy for their country.
But the euphoria triggered by the beautiful game quickly gave way to divisive, ugly debates about national identity. Voices online and in the media congratulated Africa rather than France on its win, referring to the immigrant backgrounds of some team members.
In Germany, high-ranking members of the German football association joined far-right politicians in blaming Mesut Özil for their national team’s disappointing early exit. The virulent criticism led Özil to announce that he would no longer play for Germany in international football, stating that in the eyes of his critics, “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
Central to the controversy surrounding Özil was his decision, prior to the World Cup, to meet and pose for a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a time of heightened tensions between Germany and Turkey. Özil, whose family is of Turkish ancestry, later explained that not doing so would have been disrespectful towards both the highest office and his ancestors’ roots.
Regardless of what you may think about that moment, the strength of his attachment to his ancestors’ country of origin is not unusual; research from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights shows that almost 50% of members of immigrant minority groups identify with both their country of residence and their ancestors’ country of origin. A new Twitter hashtag dedicated to this theme – #MeTwo – has already prompted thousands of Germans with ethnic minority backgrounds to share their thoughts on the issue.
Celebrations of the French victory, too, became a flashpoint. Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, joked that “Africa won the World Cup”. This provoked an official response from the French Ambassador to the United States, who stressed that though the players’ parents may have come to France from other countries, all are French.
The ambassador’s response aimed beyond Noah, to those who refer to players’ immigrant origins as a way to delegitimise their contributions. But to Noah and others, this came across as an attempt to deny an important part of the players’ identities.
These events underscore how delicate discussions of identity, and belonging, are in today’s Europe. What Europeans with ethnic and immigrant backgrounds may see as embracing a sense of identity that incorporates both their nationality and their diverse familial roots and cultures can quickly be viewed as hostility by the majority population. The potential for misunderstandings looms large.
There is no easy solution to this issue, but the need for dialogue is clear. Instead of engaging in publicity stunts, it is time to get together and have thoughtful, candid and open-hearted conversations about what can make us all feel like we belong in today’s Europe – no matter what our backgrounds may be.
The EU Fundamental Rights Agency’s second-ever Fundamental Rights Forum, being held from 25 to 27 September, will provide a platform for precisely this discussion. Over 500 leading voices from different walks of life – including Ali Can, who initiated the #MeTwo hashtag – will come together to identify how to create a more widely shared sense of belonging.
Having witnessed the quick camaraderie of strangers coming together to cheer on their teams this World Cup, I am convinced that harnessing sport’s power as a unifier is a key building block for ensuring that win or lose, we are all part of the same team.