Africa wins the World Cup!

There have been some interesting stories coming out of the recent World Cup which deal with the make-up of European teams consisting of players from families with immigrant backgrounds. Given the large number of players on the French national team with North African roots, Trevor Noah, the host of the US TV show The Daily Show, exclaimed on his show last Monday, that “Africa won the World Cup!”. It was a joke and meant as a complement (Noah is himself from South Africa), but the French Ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, didn’t see the humor. He wrote a letter of complaint to Noah, in which he wrote:

As many of the players have already stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country but the great majority of them, all but two out of 23, were born in France. They were educated in France, they learned to play soccer in France, they are French citizens. They are proud of their country, France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.

Noah read the letter on the air and added commentary. After reading the statement in the letter that the variety of backgrounds of the players “is a reflection of France’s diversity,” Noah paused and commented, “That line here was interesting. Now, I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I think it’s more a reflection of France’s colonialism.” That is indeed the hard reality of French diversity, that in fact the French language and aspects of French culture were imposed on those conquered countries – it’s not that they had a variety of options to choose from and selected French.

The Ambassador’s letter continues: “Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To us there is no hyphenated identity. Roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team it seems you are denying their Frenchness.” This is in fact an area where there is a clear distinction between France and the United States. Many Blacks in the US identify as African-American and many other “hyphenated identities” are commonplace: Asian-American, Native American, etc. Rachel Donadio wrote about the difference in The Atlantic recently:

In the United States, just about everyone’s hyphenated. In France, or among parts of the French establishment, the notion of communautarisme, American-style identity politics in which groups derive identity and clout from their backgrounds, is seen as anathema, an affront to the French ideal that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the state…It’s a hard-won notion of citizenship that comes from a history in which the ancien régime was overthrown to create a modern French state.

France has a particular history that shapes attitudes towards citizenship and identities, especially the French Revolution and its embrace of secularity and social leveling as well as colonialism and its bitter end (Algerian war). Indeed, all European countries have histories and geographies that guide perceptions. Immigration in recent times has played an increasingly important role in that process, as large numbers of migrants have changed ethnic and racial population mixes. In Germany, there are a large number of inhabitants with Turkish heritage, with many families arriving in the 1950’s and 1960’s as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) and eventually settling in Germany. One of

Özil with the Turkish President

those families was that of a prominent soccer player for the German national team, Mesut Özil. He has been in the news recently, having quit the team under accusations of racism that he wrote about on Twitter. He stated there “I am a German when we win and an immigrant when we lose”. In fact, Özil has been criticized not only for lackluster play in Germany’s embarrassing early exit from the World Cup, but also for something he did before the competition. He had his picture taken with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan is a controversial figure in Germany, a country of which he has been very critical in recent years. The picture was much discussed in the German media, with some seeing it as evidence of misplaced loyalties.

Nonverbals at the World Cup

The World Cup is being played now in Russia and it is offering a lot of entertainment for soccer [football] fans. It’s also interesting from a cross-cultural perspective, as teams come from around the world this year, including, for the first time 4 Arab nations (Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco) and 3 Nordic entrants (Iceland, Sweden and Denmark). This represents a variety of cultures, which makes for interesting interactions.

One of the cultural manifestations is in nonverbal communication. There is body language galore, with players using gestures and grimaces widely, often to protest referee actions or to indicate their pain after being fouled. Many players are skilled at pantomime, “diving” or “flopping” at the merest touch from an opposing player. Several players have shown particular talent in that area.

Double-headed eagle

What has generated the most attention and controversy has not been related to the play on the field, but rather to nonverbal actions with political motivations. Two players for Switzerland, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri made a hand gesture, the double-headed eagle, widely understood to symbolize the Albanian flag. Both players are ethnic Albanians, originally from Kosovo, and they made the gesture in a match against Serbia, the country responsible for a crackdown on the Albanian population in Kosovo which ended only with Nato military intervention in 1999.

Three-finger salute


Serbians were angry over the gesture; the Serbian Football Association filed a complaint in which they labeled the use of the gesture “provocative”.
Serbians have their own nationalist gesture, the “three-finger salute”, which Serbian player Aleksandar Kolarov displayed in celebration after scoring a goal in a game against Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, the team from the former Yugoslavia that is still in the tournament is neither Serbia nor Kosovo (although the Swiss team is in) but Croatia – so far no nationalist gestures from that team.

Sports, race, & identity

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

One of the ways we create unique personal identities is through the free-time activities we choose. These days those activities are likely to involve lots of screen time. In response, parents may be looking for activities to get their children moving – and outside. One likely direction are sports, either individual or team. What sports children choose is likely influenced by their parents, by friends, and by what’s available nearby. One of the other factors is the current popularity of any given sport. Interest in soccer (football) always goes up when the World Cup rolls around. Of particular importance are major sports figures, particularly if they offer some personal connection. They can function as a “reference group”, a group we aspire to join. A story on NPR this week looked at the inspiration that Venus and Serena Williams have given young African-Americans to take up tennis and asked why it is that Tiger Woods has not had the same effect in golf. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that tennis, like golf, was seen as a sport for the leisure class, i.e. in the US, predominantly for whites. Of course, it takes more resources to play golf than it does tennis. But it is also likely just the image that golf projects, not a likely imagined future for most young African-Americans. There have been efforts to interest urban youth in golf, notably through the First Tee program, which has had success in some cities.

Of course, professional basketball remains the imagined future for a good number of talented young African-Americans. The NBA has over 70% Black players. As Michael Dyson pointed out in his book on “Reflecting Black”, basketball has become much more than a sport for many urban communities, “it also became a way of ritualizing racial achievement against social barriers to cultural performance.” (pp. 66-67). It used to be that baseball offered similar opportunities for Blacks – and it still does for Dominicans, who continue to flock to the US to play in the major leagues. But in last year’s World Series, there was not a single African-American on the winning team (the San Francisco Giants). There were also no Blacks on the team the Giants beat to get to the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals. Comedian and baseball fan Chris Rock commented: “How could you ever be in St. Louis and see no black people? And get this. Their crowds were more than 90 percent white — like the Ferguson police department!” In fact, he has a whole routine on the whiteness of baseball:

Cry now for Argentina?

germany-v-argentina-2014-fifa-20140713-222236-556The evening news in Germany on the Tuesday (Tagesthemen) after Germany won the World Cup showed the welcoming celebration in Berlin (naturally at the Brandenburg Gate) for the victorious German national soccer team (not called die Mannschaft, as the US media dubbed the team, but rather the Nationalelf – the national eleven). There followed a piece showing some German soccer fans – they were in the process of taking down the German flags displayed in windows. In contrast to the US, the display of flags in Germany, as well as other symbols of patriotism, are relegated almost exclusively to use in contexts related to sporting events. Waving a flag in other contexts signals support for extreme right wing political parties. The national pride the Germans experienced has little to do with feelings US citizens might have in terms of the superiority of the US over other countries. It’s more a feeling of community, and perhaps happiness over something positive that brings all Germans together. More an excuse to party than anything else and to let loose, not always an easy thing for Germans.

I was reminded today of that newscast due to news from the country that Germany defeated in the World Cup final, Argentina. The despair that Argentinians felt at the loss was likely as strong, if not stronger than the joy on the part of the Germans. And now another blow to Argentinian pride, having to default on a loan to a small group of bondholders, who refused to go along with the “haircut” agreement made in 2001 to receive partial payback. The default signals serious economic problems ahead for the country, which already has an inflation rate of 40% and has lost 25% of the value of its currency against the US dollar this year. Social unrest may follow. Once again, the contrast with Germany is stark, as the Germany economy continues full steam ahead. If in fact Argentina does default on the loan and the economy worsens, it will be interesting to see if the Argentine government once again brings up the issue of sovereignty over the Malvinas islands, as the Falklands are known in Argentina, another source of hurt national pride.

Non-freedom fries

Chip Butty – not at the Olympics!

Big bucks win over cultural preferences. There’s a ruckus in England over food at the 2012 Olympics, specifically the well-beloved Chips (French Fries). Seems that McDonald’s as an official sponsor has exclusive rights to sell fries at the Olympics. Only approved exception is fish and chips, no luck if you feel like sausage and chips, egg and chips, lasagna and chips, steak and chips or even the famous chip sandwich (Chip Butty, popular in York). Part of the problem is that the skinny McD’s fries are not the style the Brits like – they prefer fat and greasy.

Reminds me of the uproar in Germany at the 2006 World Cup when originally only Budweiser (an official sponsor) was allowed to be served at the games being played in Germany, quite a slap in the face to German beer drinkers. There is actually an excellent Budweiser beer, however it’s not the Anheuser-Busch brew but rather the original Budweiser from Budvar, in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately for beer drinkers, the relationship between the FIFA, which puts on the World Cup, and Anheuser-Busch InBev recently was extended to 2022. It remains to be seen, however, if beer will even be served at the 2014 championship in Brazil, since beer at soccer stadiums there has been banned since 2003 (too much alcohol-fueled violence). Same ban applies in Russia, the sponsor for 2018.

Side note:  There will be a new world’s largest McDonald’s for the London Olympics, taking over from the McDonald’s in Pushkin Square,  Moscow.  I visited that McD’s a couple of years ago – quite an operation there.  I went to have an American breakfast – which I have to say I enjoyed immensely, as a break from Russian food.  I have to admit as well that I have also visited the second busiest McD’s world-wide – at the Karlstor in Munich.  I enjoyed the chance to have a beer with my “Royale with Cheese”.

Who’s Italian?

The Italians may have lost in the recent European Soccer  Championships, but they did much better than anyone expected.  The most celebrated (and controversial) player for the Italian National Team was Mario Balotelli.  He’s the one who scored 2 goals to propel Italy to victory over heavily favored Germany. Balotelli was born in Sicily but speaks Italian with a broad northern accent. The big surprise, however,  is this:  he is black, born of  Ghanaian immigrants, but raised by an Italian adoptive family .  A story today on NPR talks about how the prominence of Balotelli is changing what it means to be Italian.  As with black players on other European teams, Balotelli has seen a lot of fan abuse and prejudice.  But the victory over Germany may change some opinions.

The photo above, with his mother, may contribute as well to a changed view:  “As the triumphant striker approached the stands, he gave this championship its iconic photo off the pitch — the 6-foot-2-inch black Italian Mario hugging his petite white Italian mother, Sylvia.  The sight of his mother’s hand caressing the Mohawk-topped head sent a powerful message in a society where la mamma still plays a crucial role and where immigrants are most often treated as second-class. And when Balotelli ripped off his T-shirt, proudly showing off his statuesque physique, it was as if to say, ‘I’m black, I’m Italian and I am here to stay'” (NPR).  Interestingly, something similar has happened in Germany with the Turkish-German soccer star Mesut Özil.  Are these echoes of Jackie Robinson in American baseball history?