There are days when one might wonder why football is known as the Beautiful Game. Perhaps – beyond magical moments and glorious goals – when one thinks about it, this tournament should be celebrated for the power and positive impact of migration and multiculturalism. Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku wrote a piece that has earned a lot of deserved attention. Therein he reflects on the hardship of poverty and the desire for acceptance that drove him to where he is today: “I was born here. I grew up in Antwerp, and Liège and Brussels. … I’ll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch, and I’ll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighbourhood we’re in.” Seventeen of the France team are the sons of first-generation immigrants. The England team is equally diverse and, arguably, perhaps more united than any English team we’ve seen before.
This is the real story of sport at its best, a celebration of integration, of multiculturalism, of pluralism, endurance and acceptance. At the same time, there has been a sense of a jingoistic, nationalistic frenzy that has accompanied England’s tournament exploits in the past. Even an organisation like the BBC has had occasion to lose the plot with self-indulgent bias. This is somewhat understandable, so long as it’s a celebration of footballing pride, not tribal nationalism.
Steve Bloomfield, writing recently in The Guardian, highlights an important perspective on the growing euphoria surrounding the progress of England. “There’s a hypocrisy to the warm embrace that has been granted to this England team by parts of the media and the population. These are not people they normally like.” As an admirer of Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, I enjoyed the playfulness of their football anthem, Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home) back in the day. However, the notion that “football is coming home” is today, at best, a failure of the imagination, a harking back to an era long gone, an insult to the human stories of those who still strive for acceptance and respect. This England team feels different, however, and there is about it an absence of the triumphalism that was too often present in the past. England Coach, Gareth Southgate has captured this desire for change with dignity, intellect and insight when he states: “We are a team with diversity and youth that represents modern England. We are the reflection of a new identity and we hope that people connect with us.”
Afshin Molavi noted, writing in The Washington Post: “[Belgium’s] Red Devils, like France’s Les Bleus, will not be able to solve their nation’s problems. But as Europe’s immigration debate heats up, the Belgian squad can point the way toward an ideal of successful, merit-based integration while boosting national pride as they play sublime soccer before billions of viewers.” Will the communities from which these heroes have emerged be treated with greater respect or dignity as a result of this tournament? One would hope so, even if that hope feels, at times, forlorn.
There are no simple narratives that can define our true homes. Home is, for too many, a lottery for acceptance. For those blighted by the scourge of forced migration, racism and the tragedy of losing their place in the world, home is any place that is welcoming and grants safety, respect, opportunity, and peace.
If football is coming home – regardless of who ultimately takes the Cup on Sunday – I hope that it’s in the growing context of an enlightened understanding that this place we call home is a more complex, elusive and inclusive place than any national or exclusive identity can narrowly define.
Photo credit: Belle Maluf on Unsplash