Ved Sen takes on International Football, and asks it the question it fears the most.
I remember a time, when I was growing up and resenting International football. Back then, I didn’t quite understand as I do now, the enforced sense of pseudo nationality and misplaced bravura it imposes; but it was merely, the annoyance of not getting to see my club side play at the weekend, for two straight weekends. There was always a knock or two, that some of the best players used to pick up, returning from their international duties. Back then, I saw it as an impediment, today, I see it suffer from an unprecedented existential crisis, that it tries best to ignore.
The French football team which won the 1998 world cup was feted and described as the Black Blanc Beur team in French media. “Black, White, Arab”. It was seen as a wonderful confluence of footballing cultures, epitomised by Zinedine Zidane, the working class hero of Algerian descent; and Lilian Thuram, who grew up in the in banlieue [a typical French suburb, not as picturesque, as you’d imagine, but embroiled in stigma and discrimination] having moved from Guadaloupe. Yet, when French football lurched from crisis to crisis, ten years later, the same racial and multi-ethnic mix of players was seen as part of the problem. In fact, in a meeting which was to have long reaching reverberations through the French Footballing and broader sporting hierarchy, a group of managers discussed the possibility of issuing quotas for the national team. Taken out of context, it implied that they were mooting racial quotas to limit the number of non-white players in the team. However, Laurent Blanc a distinguished footballer and coach, who was at the meeting has always maintained he was talking about protecting the national team from the risk of having too many players having dual nationalities. A proactive step to reduce the number of youth players who play for France, but later, tend to choose to play for another country that offered them more regular starts in the National team.
In 2014, Adnan Januzaj was the latest teenage sensation to demand the limelight of regular first team status at Manchester United, one of the world’s biggest football clubs in terms of revenues, fan base and global appeal. Januzaj is described as a “Belgian footballer of Kosovar-Albanian descent”. A feeding frenzy ensued between countries at the time, because it turned out that Januzaj could choose to represent any of half a dozen countries. He has a Belgian passport, but qualified for Albania because of his lineage, but also Turkey as his grandparents were settled there, as they fled the Yugoslavian suppression of Albanian nationalism. He could play for Serbia owing to the disputed status of Kosovo. He could also play for Kosovo, although at the time it didn’t enjoy a national senior team status under FIFA, the global football federation. He can also play for England in a few years if he chooses to opt for British citizenship in due course.
Januzaj’s footballing options sound like a brief history of modern Europe, but his story isn’t all that unique. England, like many other countries has looked to benefit from this multi-national sporting lineage. The Great Britain Olympic team for 2012 included 60 athletes who were born elsewhere. The English cricket team has benefited from the services of many erstwhile South Africans from Tony Greig to Kevin Pieterson. And the newly appointed manager of the English football team, Sam Allardyce, has espoused the same philosophy of finding foreign-born players to play for England.
Sport or football, in particular, provides an apt microcosm of a bigger challenge that we face. We are increasingly a post national-world but a world governed by rules written by and for national governments. Often, as illustrated in the examples above, sport spells across these artificial borders and falls between their cracks. At other times, it rubs up against the constraints and demands of nationalism.
The case of Mauro Camoranesi is particularly interesting. A truly global Argentine, who played for the Italian national team, and possessing the middle name “German”, Camoranesi caused a stir in Italy because during the 2006 world cup finals (ironically held in Germany) he did not sing the Italian national anthem and later admitted to not knowing the words. After winning the World Cup in 2006 with Italy, he said “I feel Argentine but I have defended the colours of Italy, which is in my blood, with dignity. That is something nobody can take away.”
From an error of omission to an act of commission, then. Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers has been in the news for refusing the stand for the national anthem of America. It turns out that the full song of the Star Spangled Banner has references to slavery, including the line “… no refuge could hide the hireling and the slave”. Right now there is a standoff between the player and his supporters, and the police who are threatening to boycott the 49ers next game.
National anthems are the lyrical flags behind which entire countries are supposed to rally. Yet they are also often anachronisms or have been sanitised over the years with offending bits left out. The UK’s anthem – ‘God Save The Queen’ has edited out the latter 3 verses, the last of which makes a reference to ‘crushing the rebellious Scots’. The original poem of the Italian national anthem has verses referring to the ‘Austrian eagle drinking the blood of Italians’. And many anthems especially of countries born through revolutions, have references to blood, and the sacrifices of war.
When sportspeople represent their country, or stand before a flag or anthem, what is it that they are standing for? Indeed, what is it that each of us believe when we sing national anthems? Should we ignore the historical inappropriateness of the words and take the spirit to our hearts? Is digging deeper a futile attempt at revisionism? Or is it time to think of the world beyond countries? Is that is even possible? Or is ‘Imagine there’s no countries’ just a John Lennon fantasy?
Its more of a cruel reality for the team of Independent Olympic Participants. Or as you may know them, the team of refugees – athletes without countries. Notable among them, Yusra Mardini, who as you must know saved 20 people by swimming for 3 hours and steering a boat of fellow fleeing refugees from Syria to Germany, along with her sister. If the refugees team at the Olympics won any medals, the Olympic anthem would have played. None of them, however, made it past the heats, but nonetheless they can count themselves as among the early winners of the post-national world.
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