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World Cup Final Has African Flavor, But Challenges Remain


France’s Kylian Mbappe controls the ball during the semifinal match between France and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 10, 2018.

When the French national team competes in Sunday’s World Cup final, they’ll have a chance to win the championship 20 years after they first brought home one of sports’ most-coveted trophies.

But the team has already garnered attention for a different reason: About 15 of the 23 players on France’s roster trace their roots to Africa, making it one of the most diverse squads to ever represent a European country.

Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year-old forward and a breakout star of the tournament, has an Algerian mother and a Cameroonian father. Paul Pogba, France’s most celebrated player, is of Guinean origin. And Samuel Umtiti, the defender who scored the lone goal in France’s 1-0 victory over Belgium, was born in Cameroon.

France’s Lucas Hernandez, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi at France’s training site in Moscow, July 12, 2018.
France’s Lucas Hernandez, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi at France’s training site in Moscow, July 12, 2018.

‘Immigration on stage’

The team’s success comes at a time when immigration has garnered significant attention in Europe. Anger over migration from the Middle East and Africa has fueled the rise of nationalistic political parties across Europe, including France.

In this climate, some are hoping the World Cup will have a political impact.

“Football allows us to put immigration on stage,” Yvan Gastaut, a University of Nice historian who curated an exhibit on soccer and migration, told the Associated Press. “For people who see immigration as a danger, this World Cup story won’t resolve that. But it allows us to take stock of the reality of the world, of mobility, movements, multiple identities.”

But Peter Alegi, a professor of African history at Michigan State University, cautions to not expect a sea change.

Alegi, who has written about African soccer in several books, said France’s 1998 championship team also was hailed for its multicultural makeup. The phrase “black-blanc-beur,” meaning “black-white-Arab,” was widely repeated by fans who celebrated the diversity of the ‘98 French team.

The cultural impact since that time, however, has been minimal.

“There was a great kind of almost naive hope that they, too, with their mixed team would herald a new France — a more integrated and tolerant and inclusive France. And I don’t think, years later, we can look back and say that that project worked out all too well,” Alegi told VOA.

A combination of file pictures shows France’s squad (L) in St. Petersburg on July 10, 2018, and Croatia’s squad in Sochi on July 7, 2018, during the Russia 2018 World Cup soccer tournament.
A combination of file pictures shows France’s squad (L) in St. Petersburg on July 10, 2018, and Croatia’s squad in Sochi on July 7, 2018, during the Russia 2018 World Cup soccer tournament.

Addressing racism

One area where there has been some improvement in international soccer is in stamping out overt racism. The sport’s governing body, FIFA, now allows referees to stop matches in cases of racial acts, and players and fans alike face stiff consequences. This has halted some of the worst behavior once rampant in Europe’s elite leagues, but it is not a cure-all.

“Racism is a cancer in our society that it needs to be tackled holistically. We cannot expect sports to do the work that, for example, schools or political institutions or other very important forces must do to tackle the issue,” Alegi said.

More subtle racism may still occur in World Cup matches, where some feel that African players get called for fouls more often than their white counterparts, Alegi added.

The World Cup has also had a mixed impact on the African continent. There is great pride in seeing players of African origin compete on the world stage, but many African clubs are struggling, and no African team advanced to the Round of 16 in this year’s tournament.

“[Players of African origin] symbolize the capacity to succeed against all odds in a foreign country [and] in a tough context like Europe,” Alegi said. “But at the same time I know many of my African colleagues who study sports in particular and popular culture have pointed out that it’s also a kind of bittersweet moment because the success of these players of African origin in Europe also means that the talent has been drained from Africa.”

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