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A colonial history and other lessons from football

Luis Dias


I’m hardly the football expert, and would fare terribly in any quiz on football history, league football or player stats. But I do get excited by the beautiful game every four years at World Cup time. It’s just too seductive, the match upon match, the nail-biting misses, the soul-uplifting, often balletic poetry in motion when a player slams the ball into the net against impossible odds from the most unexpected angle, and the intoxicating procession of sometimes tongue-twisting names from every corner of the globe.

Over the last few World Cups I’ve realised that the composition of the team squads of the former colonising nations often betrays their colonial past.

Take Portugal for instance: Bruno Alves has Brazilian ancestry; Pepe was born and raised in Brazil; Manuel Fernandes and Ricardo Pereira are of Cabo Verdean descent; William Carvalho was born in Luanda, Angola and Gelson Martins in Cabo Verde.

Moving on to France, Presnel Kimpembe has a Congolese father and Haitian mother, Samuel Umtiti was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon and Paul Pogba has Guinean parentage. Thomas Lemar was born in Baie-Mahault, Guadeloupe; Kylian Mbappé’s father is from Cameroon and mother from Algeria; Ousman Dembélé’s mother is of Mauritanian and Senegalese descent, while his father is from Mali. N’Goto Kanté’s parents are also emigrés from Mali; Blaise Matuidi has a Congolese mother; Steven Nzonzi has a Congolese father; Steve Mandanda was born in Kinshasa, then Zaire, today the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Adil Rami was born to Moroccan parents.

I am sure there are others, but this is what a cursory search revealed. But this is true of other former colonising nations as well: Spain, Italy, Belgium, England and Germany.

At first glance, one could conclude that this is a reflection of how multi-cultural the world in general, and Europe in particular has become; one could therefore argue as an extrapolation from that line of thinking that the significantly high colonial representation in these team squads reflects how much emigrés from former colonies have been assimilated into contemporary European society. Also, if people from former colonies are entitled to citizenship rights of the coloniser country, then technically speaking, they are not even emigrés, but equal citizens, and so it is perfectly natural to see such representation.

But scrape a little beneath this façade, and some truths are less palatable. I came across a paper on the Taylor & Francis Online website taken from ‘Soccer and Society’ journal (volume 8, 2007 – Issue 4: Globalised Football) titled ‘African Football Labour Migration to Portugal: Colonial and Neo-Colonial Resource’ by Paul Darby, University of Ulster at Jordanstown. It makes the case that the process of African player migration to Europe has involved varying degrees of neo-colonial exploitation and impoverishment of African football. In exploring the place of Portugal in broader migratory patterns between African and European football, it looks at “the extent to which Portugal has used football talent from its former colonial ‘possessions’ such as Mozambique as a colonial and neo‐colonial resource.” It further argues that while “those players who have ‘made it’ in Portuguese football have benefited hugely economically and in terms of access to improved training conditions, their migration to Portuguese football is part of a wider process that has under‐developed African football”.

Another aspect is how non-white players are regarded in Europe, both in their home country and abroad. This 2018 FIFA World Cup got off to an unpleasant start when racist chants were hurled at French players Dembélé, Kante and Pogba by Russian fans during an international friendly match, just months before the games. Russia was fined by FIFA for the incident.

The French right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has gone on record to say that there were too many “players of colour” on the national team, to the extent that France “cannot recognise itself in the national side”. He also criticised some players (sound familiar anyone?) for failing to sing the national anthem. Le Pen’s remarks invited a strong response in particular from Lilian Thuram-Ulien, France’s most capped player, denouncing the National Front leader as being ignorant of the make-up of his country’s society and history.

What would Le Pen have to say to Kylian Mbappé’s stunning two powerhouse goal’s that secured France’s win over Argentina on June 30 at Kazan, “leaving Lionel Messi in his wake as a World Cup changing of the guard unfolded before our eyes”, as the sports page headline of the Independent so poetically put it? Or to Samuel Umtiti’s decisive solitary goal against Belgium on July 10, catapulting France into the finals?

Mais non. When such players bring victory, they are fêted. But woe betide them if they don’t. As long as Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku is on a roll, he’s “Belgian”; if he doesn’t deliver for whatever reason, the national press feels it necessary to mention his “Congolese descent”.

Belgium’s chapter of colonialism in the Congo still haunts them despite attempts to air-brush the period from their school history books. Monuments to King Leopold II abound, even though during his reign, an estimated 10 million people in the then ‘Congo Free State’ were put to death, with horrific abuses, including mutilations and amputations inflicted even on little children. Yet, the tag of crimes against humanity (the ‘hidden Holocaust’ as it is sometimes called today) conveniently eluded them until fairly recently.

The legacy of this colonial past in Belgium is a condescending attitude to non-whites, particularly on the football pitch. The Belgium Football Association receives about 25 racism-related complaints a year, but the problem must be much more widespread.

Such attitudes unfortunately extend across Europe as well. Look at the abuse hurled at Swedish midfielder Jimmy Durmaz (who was born to Assyrian parents, who migrated from Midyat, Turkey) conceding a late free-kick against Germany at Sochi on June 23. This was his response: “I am a footballer at the highest level so I have to accept that I am criticised for what I do on the pitch. That’s part of the job – and I am always willing to accept that. But there are limits….When someone threatens me, when they call me darkie, bloody Arab, terrorist, Taliban … then that limit has been passed. And what is even worse, when they go after my family and my children and threaten them … who the hell does that kind of thing?”

Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho got similar racist vitriol after his unfortunate own-goal in the crucial match against Belgium on July 6.

This is something that Portuguese footballer Ricardo Quaresma (of partial Romani descent, and therefore nicknamed ‘O Cigano’ i.e. The Gyspsy) knows well. In a 2014 interview, he said: “When I hear people say there is no racism nowadays it makes me laugh. When something happens in Portugal it’s always the fault of gypsies, blacks, immigrants. It’s tough to live with this.”

This is the ugly side of the beautiful game that so many players face even today.

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