By Jacqueline S. Gehring
The rising support for the far-right in Europe, like the nativist and xenophobic support for Donald Trump’s candidacy in the United States, has many Europeans and American worried about the future of their democracies. In this moment of rising anti-Islamic and racist rhetoric across Europe, tomorrow’s semi-final game between France and Germany in the European Soccer Championship is not only a showdown between the European Union’s two most influential countries, it also provides an opportunity to understand how race, racism, and the far-right influence the politics of national identity in France and Germany.
The French and German soccer teams are very diverse, with players who are racialized as non-white—a fancy way of saying that they are often treated as racial minorities, just as black or Latino Americans face discrimination in the United States. Although many French and Germans claim that racism is not a significant problem in their countries, research demonstrates that racial discrimination is widespread in both countries. As symbols of the French and German nations, the diversity of the French and German national teams challenges those who believe that their nations should be for “ethnic French” or “ethnic Germans.” At the same time, these soccer teams become a rallying point for French and German politicians who seek to promote the benefits of a diverse society.
In Germany, the diversity of the national team is highly politicized with the center-right and the center-left each trying to claim the national team as their own. As the defending World Cup champions, no mainstream political party had dared to challenge the diversity of the team. That all changed in May when a leader of the new far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) said that most people would not want to be neighbors with one of the team’s stars Jerome Boateng. Boateng, who has a German mother and a Ghanian father, is seen as being a problem neighbor by this AfD leader because of his ethnicity. The AfD has become the third most popular party in national polls (garnering 15% of support), so this criticism of Boateng was not merely the extreme racism of a small or unpopular political party. Just a week earlier, the smaller, anti-Islam movement Pegida, took to its social media pages outraged that black and brown children’s faces were being featured on popular candy bar wrappers throughout Germany. The packaging actually featured the childhood photos of Boateng and some of his teammates.
Mainstream German politicians and fans of the soccer team responded quickly and adamantly to these attacks on Boateng and the diversity of the national team with public statements asking Boateng to be their neighbor. A national newspaper headed to Boateng’s neighborhood to interview his neighbors who all said how lovely it was to have him in the community. Even the AfD repudiated the anti-Boateng comments after the wide-spread support for Boateng became clear. In this way, the AfD’s statements inadvertently invited Germans to interrogate their own beliefs about race and German identity, with many of them declaring that Boateng was as German as they are. Interestingly, Boateng has had an amazing European Championship, with some commentators suggesting he might be the best defender of the tournament so far. After Boateng saved a sure goal for Germany, one sports media outlet declared that it was good that the goalie had Boateng for a neighbor.
Support for the diversity of Germany’s soccer team has been a rebuke to the far-right. What remains to be seen, is if support for diversity will continue if the soccer team stops playing so well.
The history of the French national team provides some clues as to what may happen in Germany if the German national team no longer plays so well. In France, support for the diverse team fell as soon as it started to lose. In 1998, when the diverse French national team won the World Cup, the nation celebrated its diversity first and foremost. Since that moment of greatness, however, the team has not fared as well, while at the same time the team featured more non-white players. The French national team’s disastrous 2010 World Cup led the national coaches to conclude that diversity was part of the problem, not the key to success. They then imposed racial quotas on in the national youth development program in the hopes of making the team less diverse. In preparing for this European championship the head coach (who was a player on the diverse 1998 World Cup winning team), has been accused of leaving two minority players off the team because of pressure from racist politicians. The current French team not only feels the pressure to win as hosts of the Euros this year, but they also feel the political pressure of trying to redeem the idea that victory will come through diversity, and that France is stronger because of its diversity. When they face off against Germany they are playing not only for a trophy, but also for an idea.
The downfall of the French team, and the belief that diversity has been hurting instead of helping the team, has been a boon for the National Front, France’s main far-right political party. The party has received increasing support in national polls, and seems to be pushing the mainstream French political parties further to the right on issues of immigration and diversity.
The link between the success of the French national soccer team and the popularity of a diverse French nation may foreshadow a similar relationship between the success of Germany’s diverse national team and pro-diversity voices. Thus, much more may be at stake in tomorrow’s game than a mere trophy. Victory for either diverse national soccer team may provide a temporary bulwark against rising racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric in their respective countries, and may influence electoral decisions in upcoming national elections. More research should be done on the link between voting behavior, attitudes, and the success of the diverse national teams, but, in the meantime, we see that the far-right’s racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric faces significant backlash when a diverse national team is performing well.
Jacqueline S. Gehring is associate professor of Political Science at Allegheny College.