The story of the Thai footballers was lent a particular resonance by its timing. Right in the middle of the Fifa World Cup in Russia, a group of children in Thailand was brought together by the same sport. A sport loved by so many, it is no wonder that, while they waited to be rescued, the kids in the cave asked for less homework, more of their favourite food and the results of World Cup matches. After our lust for power, football is the world’s other global passion.
When France take to the field in the final this week, 17 players in the team’s 23-man squad will be the children of first-generation immigrants. Other European squads are also stacked with the children of immigrants or players who are recent migrants, most notably Switzerland and Belgium.
There is much to celebrate in the diversity of these teams. But too often, immigrants have to be remarkable, they have to be endowed with the prowess of Romelu Lukaku or Kylian Mbappé to be celebrated, to be included, to be acknowledged as an insider.
The immigration debate continues to dominate European politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government nearly collapsed recently over divisions among her coalition partners on immigration. In Britain, it was the restlessness about the large numbers of migrants that fuelled the spectacular own goal that is Brexit. And in France, the National Front’s Marine le Pen captured a third of the French electorate in the election last year.
It doesn’t end there.
The Swiss voted in an anti-immigrant party to lead its Parliament three years ago; Italy’s populist far-right League threatened mass deportations of illegal immigrants during its 2018 political campaign. The League won the most votes and formed a coalition government alongside the populist-left Five Star Movement. Then there’s the Italians’ unveiled racism towards black players. We cannot celebrate the inclusion of players such as Mbappé in national teams playing in the World Cup as a victory for migration.
The truth is that the likes of France continue to benefit from migration while still waging a war on migrants. This is a dangerous schizophrenia that no trophy can cure.