In a performance that culminated in a convincing 4-2 victory over Croatia in the final, France won the 2018 World Cup final. “Les Blues,” as the French team is known, won the tournament with a dazzling display of energy, flair and creativity. France’s success is being attributed in no small part to its diversity; many of the teams that did well in the tournament were multiethnic and multiracial. Their success is being touted as an antidote to the anti-immigrant sentiment that is sweeping Europe and the developed world. Diversity is important and is good, but a champion soccer team is less revealing than it seems. Trophies will not produce tolerance.
Sixteen of France’s 23 team members come from families that recently immigrated; 15 of them have African roots. Other players came from other European countries: Goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris’ family is from Spain. The 1998 team, which also won the World Cup, was almost as diverse: 11 of its players were either first- or second-generation immigrants.
Other teams that reached the semifinals had a similar makeup. England fielded 11 players of African or Caribbean descent; coach Gareth Southgate said the team “represents modern England.” Eleven players on the Belgium team were from migrant families. The goals that tied the game and propelled the Red Devils (the Belgium’s team) to victory over Japan were scored by the sons of immigrants. Croatia appears to be the exception, fielding an ethnically homogeneous team, but several of its players were born or grew up abroad.
The success of diverse teams should come as no surprise. In addition to this year’s winner, six of the members of Germany’s World Cup winning team in 2014 — more than a quarter of the players — had foreign origins. One study showed that during a decade of European Champions League matches, more diverse teams outperformed less diverse adversaries.
There is a readiness to see in this record a message for societies: a plea for tolerance and acceptance, and an end to racial hostility. And in the celebrations that follow victory, differences are invariably forgotten. After its win in 1998, the French team was heralded as a “symbol of the diversity and unity of the country.” After Sunday’s victory, French forward Antoine Griezmann, who netted the penalty kick that put France ahead, pointed to the diversity of his teammates and said, “That’s the France we love. Different origins but we are all united.”
Were it so easy. As Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku has lamented, “When things were going well … they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.” Right-wing politicians in France, such as Marine Le Pen, take no solace from the makeup of Les Bleus or their success. Marine complained in 2010 that “when I look at Les Bleus, I don’t recognize France or myself.”
They are not alone in that view: Just over a third (33.9 percent) of voters backed Le Pen’s National Front in the second round of France’s presidential elections last year. The World Cup was preceded by a bitter debate over immigration among European governments. The German government nearly collapsed over immigration policy and fear of immigration animated the 2016 British vote to leave the European Union. Far-right politicians in Italy’s new government threatened mass deportations of illegal immigrations during this year’s parliamentary campaign, and the head of the Italian football federation infamously complained about “banana eaters” in the country’s top teams. (Ironically, Italy, which ranks low in the number of first-generation players on the national team, failed to qualify for the World Cup this year.)
Football success does not translate into a color-blind society. Many Europeans of African descent face bitter discrimination because of the color of their skin. Indeed, a form of discrimination could account for the success in integrating immigrants into sports teams: Poor, working class and primarily immigrant neighborhoods are thought to have success stories. Outreach is common as a result. Other opportunities are not provided, and other skills are not taught.
Some see lessons for Japan in France’s success and the Samurai Blue’s Round of 16 defeat. Japan’s teams rarely include immigrants; only a handful (almost all Brazilian-born) have graced the pitch. Sixteen of the 23 players on this year’s World Cup squad play overseas, however, and foreign coaches have been the norm for three decades. Some assert that Japan’s frustrations in international competition reflect a failure to incorporate immigrants and see this as a more national failing. They would be right — but only insofar as soccer is concerned. The broader message from France’s record is that societies must be ready to welcome and integrate immigrants, not just soccer players. Japan has choices to make about its readiness to do so and the price it is prepared to pay not just for sports trophies but for a more diverse society.