Three of the four national teams that made it to the World Cup semifinals — France, Belgium and England — are, one might think, icons of European diversity. Immigrants and sons of immigrants are overrepresented on these squads compared with the demographics of these countries as a whole. But one could also see this diversity as a sign that integration isn’t working too well in much of Europe.
France’s starting lineup in Tuesday’s semifinal against Belgium contained five players born overseas or to immigrant parents: Cameroonian-born Samuel Umtiti; N’Golo Kante, whose parents came from Mali; son of Guinean parents Paul Pogba; Kylian Mbappe, whose father is Cameroonian and mother Algerian; and Blaise Matuidi, son of an Angolan father and a Congolese mother. That’s 45 percent of the starting 11. Non-European Union immigrants and their children make up only 13.5 percent of France’s population, according to Eurostat.
Belgium’s starting 11 also had five players of immigrant background: Nacer Chadli, who started out playing for the Moroccan national team before he switched to Belgium; Marouane Fellaini, whose parents are also Moroccan; Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku, whose fathers are Congolese; and Mousa Dembele, whose father is from Mali. Belgium’s population of first- and second-generation non-EU immigrants is 12 percent.
England, too, has a greater proportion of players with non-European immigrant backgrounds — mostly Caribbean, as in the cases of Kyle Walker, Ashley Young, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard; Dele Alli’s father is Nigerian — than the U.K. has such residents. Their share is 14 percent of the overall U.K. population.
England head coach Gareth Southgate is not quite right when he says his team “represents modern England.” Neither he nor the French and Belgian coaches, who have voiced similar sentiments, are wrong to be proud of the diversity, however. The national teams and the powerful player selection systems in the three countries pick the best players regardless or their origin, religion or skin color. Soccer has to be meritocratic because it’s competition in its purest form, not constrained by national borders to the same degree as American sports. In soccer, the son of a banker and a lawyer (that’s the background of French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris) is on an equal footing with someone like Lukaku, whose family couldn’t pay its electricity bills for weeks at a time and whose mother had to water down his milk to make it last longer. Or like Sterling, whose mother cleaned hotel rooms to put herself through school.
For immigrants without fast-twitch muscles and great footwork, however, there is no level playing field. Employment rates are noticeably lower among first-generation immigrants than for the population as a whole, and they don’t improve much for the second generation.
The odds are stacked against kids with the same background as the world-class soccer players in a number of important ways. Statistics show a higher percentage of second-generation immigrants than native-born people go to college in France and the U.K. (though not in Belgium) — but, according to a 2017 report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, an overwhelming majority of young people with low educational attainment in all three countries are second-generation, non-EU immigrants. The report says:
Educational aspirations are generally high among migrant families. However, while educational aspirations may support educational upward mobility, by itself they are not sufficient, particularly when support structures and knowledge on how to attain these goals is lacking.
As a result, in Belgium, people with non-EU-born parents are 13.2 percent less likely than the native-born to get a better job than their parents; in France, the likelihood is 8 percent lower, and in the U.K., 4 percent lower. People are stuck in low-paid occupations – and in low-income areas full of other people with migration backgrounds. This creates a vicious circle for millions of people, even if it gives the extremely talented few the impulse to fight harder.
“Let me tell you something — every game I ever played was a final,” Lukaku told The Players’ Tribune.
When I played in the park, it was a final. When I played during break in kindergarten, it was a final. I’m dead-ass serious. I used to try to tear the cover off the ball every time I shot it. Full power. We weren’t hitting R1, bro. No finesse shot. I didn’t have the new “FIFA”. I didn’t have a Playstation. I wasn’t playing around. I was trying to kill you.
In a column for The Times, Patrick Vieira, the former French international, echoes the violence of that self-description as he recalls his childhood in a poor Paris suburb — the kind of place from which most of the current French team’s second-generation immigrants hail from.
“When I trained and played,” he wrote, “it was with a knife in my teeth. By that I mean I had a hunger to succeed. I loved the game but I also had a drive from my mother. To so many people in those estates, there are no jobs, no help. You see that determination in a lot of footballers from those concrete pitches.”
Sports — in particular, soccer with its well-developed, lavishly funded selection systems and powerful clubs — can be a straight path out of poverty. Several of the French and Belgian players’ fathers are former small-time soccer pros, and they gave their sons good advice, providing some of the networking benefits that immigrants, whether first- or second-generation, lack in Europe.
The soccer meritocracy can’t give every ghetto kid an upward path, though. All it can do is make sure the ones who play every game like their last make it onto big club rosters and national teams.
There’s a lesson in this for the rest of society. Soccer’s support networks for talented kids can and should be replicated in other areas of endeavor. Some of the boys and girls growing up in no-hope areas today could be the Mbappes and Lukakus of tech, finance or the arts. The national teams, multicolored as they are, exist to remind governments, businesses and educational institutions that they just need to look harder.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru. Follow Leonid on Twitter @Bershidsky.