Afshin Molavi is co-director of the emerge85 Lab and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
When the French national team electrified the world two decades ago with a 3-0 drubbing of powerhouse Brazil in the World Cup final, Kylian Mbappe had not yet even been born. On Saturday, the 19-year-old French striker accomplished a feat that only one other player has ever achieved: scoring two goals in a World Cup match as a teenager.
The other player to achieve that milestone? The Brazilian legend, Pele, back in 1958 when he first stormed onto the international stage. Not bad company for the son of a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother, who grew up in Paris suburbs idolizing Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
While Mbappe is an unusual talent, his background as the son of first-generation immigrants to France makes him a typical French national team player. Indeed, 17 players on France’s 23-man roster at this year’s Cup are the sons of first-generation immigrants. Other successful European squads are also stacked with talent from sons of immigrants or recent migrants themselves, notably Switzerland and Belgium.
That famous French squad that thrust the FIFA trophy into the air in Paris in 1998 was noted for its diversity. The French tricolors, it was said triumphantly at the time went from white, blue and red to “black, blanc, et beur” (black, white, and a term for Arabs of North African descent).
During the celebrations that ensued, French political leaders hailed the victory of “Les Bleus“ — as the national team is known — as not just a win on the football pitch, but a win for the “French model” of diversity and inclusion. The venerable Le Monde called the team a “symbol of the diversity and unity of the country.” Les Bleus cast a golden glow on France in that shining moment.
It did not last. On the back of an anti-immigrant backlash, far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen captured a hefty 17 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election in 2002 — a reminder that sports can only go so far in healing deeper societal rifts. Le Pen had earlier complained that the team’s multiracial identity did not look French enough for him. While Le Pen was soundly defeated by Jacques Chirac in the runoff, the anxiety over immigrants that he channeled has accelerated over the past decade and a half across Western democracies, as immigration has risen alongside middle class economic insecurities.
While the World Cup has taken center stage of the sporting world this summer, the immigration debate has taken center stage in European politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government nearly collapsed over divisions among her coalition partners on immigration. In Britain, unease over large numbers of migrants helped fuel the vote to leave the European Union. And in France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen put up a more formidable fight than her father during her 2017 loss to President Emmanuel Macron, capturing a third of the French electorate. She, too, famously lamented that “when I look at Les Bleus, I don’t recognize France or myself.”
It goes on. The Swiss (yes, the Swiss!) voted in an anti-immigrant party to lead its parliament three years ago; Italy’s populist far-right League threatened mass deportations of illegal immigrants during its 2018 political campaign. The League won the most votes, and formed a coalition government alongside the populist left Five Star Movement.
Italian soccer fans have also been among the most racist toward African players. The president of the Italian football federation once lamented the “banana eaters” populating Italy’s professional leagues. Italy ranks low among European squads in terms of first-generation immigrants donning the national jersey. (The Italian side failed to qualify for the World Cup this year.)
Meanwhile, the latest multicultural team turning heads is Belgium, with a small population of only 11 million. Loaded with talented and hard-working sons of first-generation migrants from Congo, Morocco, Burundi, Mali and beyond, Belgium came into the tournament as world’s No. 3 team.
Belgium’s soccer transformation is the most talked-about revitalization program in the game. A grass-roots transformation began in the early 2000s, with an emphasis on technical skills and nationwide youth development. This coincided with a national program to use soccer to help integrate recent migrants. It proved to be a potent mix, and the so-called “golden generation” of Belgian players born of that era are playing starring roles in top-flight European leagues.
On Monday, however, the Red Devils, as they are known, stared into the abyss. A scrappy Japan side shocked the Belgians with two quick goals to start the second half of their Round of 16 game. Keeping steady, the Belgians pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in World Cup knockout stage history, scoring three times during a furious 30 minutes of soccer that will long be remembered in the annals of “the beautiful game.”
On the winning goal, the star striker, Romelu Lukaku, the son of Congolese migrants, played decoy, letting the ball slip through his legs as Nacer Chadli, the son of Moroccan migrants, slid down the left side and converted the game winner. Earlier, the game-tying goal was headed in by another son of Moroccan migrants, Marouane Fellaini.
The Belgian national team have not only become a multicultural symbol, much like Les Bleus of the late 1990s, but they have become a powerful unifying force in a famously fractious country. The predominantly Dutch-speaking Flanders region of the north has made repeated calls for seceding from the rest of the country, and the Belgians are among the least nationalist in Europe. The country is seemingly always on the verge of breaking up and, as Cas Mudde, a specialist on populism in Europe at the University of Georgia writes, pro-Belgium parties “have always looked to the Red Devils to boost the Belgian spirit of its compatriots.”
In Belgium, traditional immigration anxiety has mixed with terrorism fears after the 2016 Brussels bombing led by homegrown Islamist extremists killed 32 people and shocked the country. The neighborhood where the terrorists hailed from, Molenbeek, in Brussels, is full of first-generation sons and daughters of migrants of North African descent. A conservative Islamist political party running for Belgian municipal elections next fall has only exacerbated anxieties in certain quarters about the rise of Islam in the country.
The 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.