The World Cup and Growing up Black

Kevin Kapenda // Columnist

By mid-November, 32 teams from across the globe will have earned a place at next year’s World Cup in Russia. For many people, the World Cup is little more than sports entertainment. A month-long comedy (or annoyance) based on triumph, failure and the elation from just the qualification rounds.

Being both black and a fan of soccer in Canada, I assign more meaning to the tournament. To me, the World Cup allows people to engage with their culture, or embrace others, through a shared love for the beautiful game. As superficial as this often looks (drunks and hooligans), the World Cup allows us to place ourselves on this Earth, regardless of where we’re “from” or where we are at the moment.

However, as I’ve grown older, international football has also got me thinking about access and inclusion. What happens when you belong to more than one group, and those identities are being questioned as mutually incompatible or undesirable?

As a kid, the historic Les Bleus of the late 1990s and early 2000s were more than just France’s team. Many of their stars’ parents had been born outside of the country, while many of their players were indeed born elsewhere. Yes, the players were French, but they were also Caribbean, Arab, African and Portuguese.

This plethora of identities has not only been credited with France’s success on the pitch, having reached four finals since 1998 in nine in tournaments, but also establishing them as one of the planet’s most popular national teams.

Watching this immigrant-dominated team succeed gave me hope that perceptions of people who look like me may shift. That more often than none, we might begin to be viewed as contributors to the West and its countries, rather than delinquents reliant on the welfare state.

One of the tragedies of football, and sport in general is this belief that it is isolated from politics and should remain that way. However, in a game where national teams are embodiments of state history, from colonization and slavery, to immigration and citizenship policies, I find it hard nor rational to separate politics from football.

Indeed, I support Brazil and Portugal in their respective rivalries against Argentina and Spain because in the former nations, black players are well represented in their national teams. Of course, the racial makeup of these four countries’ teams is not accidental. Argentina’s “no Negros” policies, and Spain’s reputation as one the most anti-black nations in Western Europe is why those rivalries impassion me.

Looking at Western Europe’s top teams since the 1990s, it is evident which countries have embraced difference and dedicated themselves integration. Sure, anti-Black racism persist in the likes of Belgium, Germany, France, Brazil and England, but they are miles ahead of Argentina, Spain and Italy, where coloured players are often subject to racial abuse online and in stadiums.

After a lifetime of watching the game, I’ve realized that soccer is not separate from institutions of race and power – it’s a product of it, that is always changing. It’s difficult to conceive that many of Germany’s best players are ethnically black and Turkish, but that’s what is possible when winning is prioritized over racism and diversity is recognized as the force it is.

Sadly, blackness is something soccer continues to have a hard time accepting. Ironically, “Black” players are some of the only footballers who have qualified for teams from all four continents. Still, there are many who do not want them in their stadiums and on their teams. People are entitled to their beliefs. However, it is important that these beliefs are recognized for what they are. Perceptions of what those societies should be, and should be included and excluded from them.

If you want to learn more about the world’s countries and their people, watch international soccer and refer to Wikipedia when confused. It’ll cost you far less than a university degree. I would recommend travelling, but depending on you are, you may find you’re not exactly welcome everywhere.


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