BIPP Insights

BIPP student intern Yiwei Wang ’19 and guest writer Max Hubbauer ’19 explore issues related to ethnocentrism and diversity through the lens of the 2018 World Cup.

Multiculturalism and Ethnocentrism at the 2018 World Cup: A reflection on French victory and German defeat

 As the whistle sounded at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium confirming France’s place as World Cup champions, the nation and its players finally exulted. The 4-2 victory over a gritty Croatian team proved a testament to the tactical brilliance of the French side led by Didier Deschamps whose star-studded lineup featuring the likes of Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann sacrificed individual glory for the collective success of Les Bleus. But amidst the celebration and reverie, it was clear the win was indicative of something greater. For many, the triumph was seen as a form of national relief, a momentary respite from the issues that have beleaguered French society of late. In the wake of recent terror attacks and social tension along racial and ethnic lines, the nation’s win has seemingly provided a temporary panacea; helping the country put its differences aside to unite in the name of soccer.

The celebrations both within the stadium and all throughout France have been reflective of a multicultural and multiethnic country-one whose success at this tournament was largely built off the backs of young players whose parents were immigrants. In fact, of the 23-man squad sent to Russia, over half were of African or Arab descent and had the opportunity to play for another country based off their heritage. One such star, Blaise Matuidi, whose father emigrated from Angola, commented, “the diversity in this team is in the image of our beautiful country. We proudly represent France. For us, that’s superb.” But while it may be wishful thinking to believe one win can be a cure-all for France’s deeply entrenched issues, it is undeniable that the country has been more united as a result of the team’s heroics on the soccer pitch. In a World Cup which has seen splintering national identities, ethnocentrism and racism cast in the spotlight yet again, the French victory has brought a refreshing narrative of unity to a game which has always seemed to inspire division in the past.

One need to look no further than the rift within the German national team whose historic collapse marked the nation’s earliest exit at the tournament since 1938. For several German media pundits, the chink in Die Mannschaft’s near impenetrable armor was vindication of a lack of togetherness dating back to the start of the tournament when two of its star players, Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan, became embroiled in political controversy.  Both players, who are of Turkish descent, were widely panned after a photo of them with divisive Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan surfaced on social media. Erdoğan, whose regime has allegedly committed several human rights violations, would use the picture as propaganda in the lead up to his re-election campaign in June. In Germany, the photo was met with harsh criticism as fans questioned the loyalty of the two players and called for their dismissal from the preliminary World Cup roster sent to Russia. Former German star, Lothar Matthäus, singled out Özil saying he “doesn’t feel comfortable in the DFB jersey” while Gündoğan would face similar derision and, during a friendly against Saudi Arabia, had his car vandalized. Upon the team’s premature exit from the tournament, tensions were only exacerbated as blame for the loss largely fell on the shoulders of the two men. Özil in particular found himself the scapegoat as DFB officials Oliver Bierhoff and Reinhard Grindel openly voiced their grievances towards the midfielder. Though coach Jogi Low would continually dismiss the incident as merely a distraction, the resulting media storm would restate the complicated intersection of soccer and politics in today’s world.

But the controversy surrounding the two men has been emblematic of larger issues surrounding the sport: ethnocentrism and racism, both of which have been unfortunate realities in this year’s edition of the quadrennial event. Like many of the champion French players, Özil and Gündoğan are multinationals whose ancestries reflect a diverse cultural history that spans borders and countries. In today’s globalized world, their stories have proven indicative of a common struggle in classifying national identity, as those with migrant backgrounds and dual citizenship grapple with ties to multiple countries. Perhaps no team in the World Cup exemplifies this flexibility in national identity more than the Moroccan team which features 17 players born elsewhere on its roster of 23. Though many were raised in France and the Netherlands, they opted to represent Morocco due to familial links to the country. And while the Moroccan team may seem an exception, much of the talent at the World Cup has similarly been ‘imported’ to some extent.

In spite of the tremendous diversity at this World Cup, discrimination has nevertheless been prevalent. No player has felt that burden more than the aforementioned German star Mesut Özil whose perceived lack of ‘Germanness’ made him an opportune target to pin the nation’s defeat on. As a result of the widespread censure, the midfielder made a shock decision on Sunday to retire from the international football community. In a scathing resignation letter posted to his Twitter, Özil cited “racism and disrespect” stemming from his meeting with Tayyip Erdoğan as the reason behind his hasty departure. In particular, he noted the duplicitous relationship with officials from the German football association claiming, “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose.” He went on to say that right-wing media outlets unfairly misconstrued the incident in an effort to “turn the nation against [him],” labelling him a social pariah unwilling to integrate into German society. The reverberations of Özil’s unexpected exit were felt immediately and have extended well beyond the football pitch into the political arena. Angela Merkel (German Chancellor) released a statement respecting his decision while contending that the majority of German citizens with Turkish roots are well integrated. Erdoğan himself would comment on the matter, condemning the “racist attitude” toward Mesut as intolerable. Some, like German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, have seen Özil’s withdrawal as a “fatal symbol in a time and a country in which right wing parties are getting ever louder and people on town squares call for refugees to drown in the seas.” By becoming an outcast in his home country, Özil has reaffirmed the difficulties in establishing a progressive, multi-ethnic society in today’s polarizing world, as even the most prominent stars are not immune to discrimination and ostracism.

Given the volatility of the current political climate in Europe where a resurgence of nationalistic right-wing parties have gained traction, Özil’s decision has provoked intense debate in Germany and throughout Europe. In light of this tumultuous climate, France’s victory has become all the more important. Since France has one of the most ethnically diverse team at this year’s tournament, they represent a guiding light for the rest of the world to follow. By surmounting the barriers that have afflicted the likes of the indomitable superpower in Germany, Les Bleus have exemplified what a harmonious, multicultural society can achieve on the world’s biggest stage. Though the celebrations may be ephemeral, the images of a united France on that day will bear lasting resonance. As fans of all races, religions, and cultures burst into delirium around the country, the national motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity) shined through for the briefest, brightest moment. While it remains to be seen which effects, if any, the win will have on French politics as a whole, at the very least the rest of the world can look to the unity of France’s crowning moment as a celebration of diversity, inclusion and equality in a world which so desperately needs it.

*The Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP) is a nonpartisan institute. Guest writers’ views on public policy are not endorsed by the Institute.


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