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2018 FIFA World Cup

The complicated politics of World Cup culture

How ethnocentrism and xenophobia have helped and hurt the international game

“Can you feel it? You’re connected to the FIFA World Cup,” the ad says. A red-bearded man in a business suit then looks up at an ad in a train station to see a soccer advert in front of him. The subsequent images then show a room full of people cheering on the Spanish national team, and a young black woman on a train (with the word “France” popping up on the screen) before the narrator speaks again. “You may not speak the language or have visited the country. You may not know their heroes. But we’re all connected to a World Cup nation through our DNA.”

Since the U.S. men’s national soccer team missed the 2018 World Cup in Russia, its broadcast partner Fox tried to gin up interest in the tournament by appealing to something many Americans identify with very well: ethnocentrism. It’s an issue that affects not only U.S. politics but also global soccer, for more reasons than just advertising. This year’s tournament is a classic example.

When Yussuf Yurary Poulsen scored for Denmark against Poland, the 24-year-old’s strike highlighted how globalism has affected the world’s game. Poulsen’s father was Tanzanian, a ship worker who lived in Denmark before dying of cancer in 2000. Poulsen, whose father was Muslim, was born two days before the 1994 World Cup began. He chose to play for Denmark instead of Tanzania after receiving no invitation to play from his so-called native land, even though he was born in Copenhagen. With Poulsen as well as Pione Sisto — who is of South Sudanese heritage, was born in Uganda but has lived in Denmark since he was 2 months old — the Danes have two black dudes in their starting lineup.

This was news to many.

But a couple of black faces sprinkled among the crowd for traditionally white nations is only a part of the discussion when it comes to how some nations handle the changing faces of their rosters. Policy, never mind commerce, can make for scenarios that are not remotely comfortable for anyone involved.

In Germany, for example, quite a few players are of Turkish descent. Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gündogan were photographed smiling with Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan last month, creating a wave of criticism among countryfolk about the issue. While this could be viewed as a political difference of opinion that doesn’t particularly matter when it comes to soccer, it’s a little more serious than that for some people.

The German football federation issued a statement saying the two players were hoodwinked by the controversial leader when the images showed up in campaign propaganda later. Gündogan subsequently had his car vandalized in what some people presumed was an act of political dissent. Understandably, it’s not a particularly good look to be grandstanding with a man widely understood to be a brutally authoritarian leader.

But you never know what’s behind this. When New York Knicks center Enes Kanter put out a social media video criticizing said president, it was viewed as an act of bravery because, well, his family could be killed for such an act of defiance. In that light, it’s hard to blame any player for doing something to keep his loved ones safe.

In Germany, however, the notion of what it is to be German is very much in question. If you add up all the people with Turkish roots and/or citizenship in Germany, you’re looking at nearly 3 million. And while the nation’s population is nearly 83 million, it’s easy to understand how players representing the country’s flag at the World Cup appearing to support a brutal regime could be viewed as un-German, so to speak.

As a result, the team itself released a message of unity before the tournament, a somewhat bizarre move for a team defending its title. The Germans promptly lost to Mexico while getting shut out in their first match.

Criticism from one’s own country for matters unrelated to the pitch are not remotely unheard of, even for the oldest soccer nations. In England, where black players have represented the Three Lions since the ’70s — and some sportswriters will tell you it’s a non-issue — there are still incidents regarding the perceptions of how young black men behave that make you wonder. Especially considering the fact that the English Football Association is rumored to have once told a coach to not “pick too many black players” for the national team.

Take Raheem Sterling, the Jamaican-born national team member who is wearing the famed No. 10 at this year’s tournament. He has that number tattooed on his arm. He also has another tattoo, that of a gun on his right leg. His father was killed by gun violence when he was 2 years old, and the ink is his tribute. None of that seemed to matter to a few loud advocacy groups that publicly said Sterling should be removed from the team for said personal expression. Seriously.

Sterling says it’s not been a distraction, but the bevy of stories around the most mundane things that he does might lead you to believe that the scrutiny comes down to more than just a famous footballer, perhaps.

“It’s one of those things that happens, gets spoken about and then goes away,” he said at media day before the start of the tournament. “The most important thing is your mentality, your focus, and my focus is just simply on training and these warm-up games and going into the tournament.” The English FA went so far as to issue a statement of support for Sterling. At the very least, it was a topic of conversation unrelated to the game that they were forced to recognize.

What made the situation even more interesting is that aside from being diversity pioneers in Europe for footballing, this year in particular was a breakthrough for the country. They basically dropped a superdope music video drawing on the incredibly rich tapestry of personalities and cultures that make up modern-day England. Frankly, it was awesome. And guess who was named first? Raheem Sterling.

Why does all this matter? Because who roots for whom, even when one’s own flag is involved, isn’t as straightforward as it seems. And drawing on cultural heritage as a primary reason for supporting a team when the situation is, in fact, quite complex, is an interesting strategy.

Take the Egyptians, who lost 1-0 to Uruguay to open their tournament. Their run to qualification was seen as an uplifting story, sparking viral videos, after the tribulations of the Arab Spring put their nation in the spotlight. Their star, Mohamed Salah, was a Sports Illustrated cover boy and the first African to win the football writers’ Player of the Year award in 2018. He had a dream season with Liverpool, and his injury in the Champions League final meant that his Liverpool side basically had no chance after he came off.

But they’re training in Chechnya, a nation well-known for its anti-LGBT attacks that have garnered quite a bit of backlash from watchdog groups. Reports have said the team is very popular there because of its large number of Muslim players, and quite a few Chechens will likely be rooting for Egypt as much as they are Russia in this tournament. Would you find it harder to root for your home nation knowing that they were aligning themselves with such a regime to win a World Cup?

In the case of Romelu Lukaku, who plays for the extremely cosmopolitan Belgium team, he is no stranger to the world of not fitting the typical demographic of a footballer in his home country. Growing up poor in Antwerp, being as black as he is, the discrimination was obvious despite the fact that his dad was a pro player.

“When I was 11 years old, I was playing for the Lièrse youth team, and one of the parents from the other team literally tried to stop me from going on the pitch. He was like, ‘How old is this kid? Where is his ID? Where is he from?’ ” he wrote. “I thought, Where am I from? What? I was born in Antwerp. I’m from Belgium.”

He’s now the all-time lead scorer in Belgium history and also netted two goals in his team’s 3-0 victory Monday over World Cup first-timers Panama.

Which brings us back to the United States, whose national team members are watching this year’s World Cup on the couch, just like the rest of us. You can argue about soccer culture and its correlation to success on the world stage, but there’s a large group of people who think that ethnocentrism is exactly what’s keeping the U.S. down.

While our country is locking people out of the border, are we arguably locking our best talent out of our national pool for the sake of keeping the rosters as white as possible? Old U.S. Soccer Federation mouthpieces masquerading as journalists will tell you that a couple of youth squads here and there have a handful of names that they basically can’t pronounce, thus making them “diverse” by most standards, but let’s be real.

Xenophobia has been one of U.S. Soccer’s biggest problems for years, a situation one could easily point out by simply looking at the group of people who’ve ever coached the men’s national team. This isn’t just a point-and-blame situation. There’s a wealth of storytelling, both anecdotal and otherwise, on how unfortunate and obvious this problem is within soccer circles.

So while the network broadcasting the most popular tournament on earth is asking us to root for our roots, many of which are often loaded with colonialist and triangular trade vestiges that quite a few of us would rather not remember, the very people who could be solving this problem are arguably avoiding the real reason it’s an issue at all.

It all just depends on what your definition of being an American is, and what you want it to be.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.