Friday 16 November, 2018

The politics of the beautiful sport

France's Samuel Umtiti, second from left, is congratulated by his teammates France's Antoine Griezmann, Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba, from left, after scoring the opening goal during the semifinal match between France and Belgium at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Some French people are not pleased with the racial makeup of the team. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

France's Samuel Umtiti, second from left, is congratulated by his teammates France's Antoine Griezmann, Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba, from left, after scoring the opening goal during the semifinal match between France and Belgium at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Some French people are not pleased with the racial makeup of the team. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

By Karyl Walker

Now that 'the greatest show on earth' is over and tears have dried up, the time may be ripe to delve into an issue which has been rightfully sidelined in favour of the beautiful game.

This is the first in the history of the World Cup Tournament where so many players of colour have represented especially for European nations and is a signal that some progress is being made by the immigrants and their children who reside in traditional white countries.

This is most evident in the makeup of the French, Belgian and English teams who have players with origins in various African and Caribbean countries. That these players have managed to propel their teams to the semi-finals of the sports premier tournament is a pleasant sight. At least for those of colour and those caucasians not hampered by the burden of racism.

Portugal was the first European country to showcase a black player in the great Eusebio in 1966 and since then France and Holland have been known to use black players even before England. Now black players represent Germany, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland

During the competition social media was abuzz with debates over the racist and genocidal history of many of the countries who have now seen it fit to utilize the skills of the descendants of the very people who their own ancestors raped, plundered and pillaged.

For some fans the mention of colour was tarnishing the spectacle and is an issue that should not be mentioned as it is only about sport.

England's Raheem Sterling, is challenged by Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen during the quarterfinal match between Sweden and England at the World Cup in Russia. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

But even though black and Arabic players are doing so well, earning millions and bringing pride and joy to the populations of powerful nations, is it just about sport?

Sports has never been only about sports. Politics and racism is very much alive in that arena. After all, sports is big business and wherever big money is circulated, the powerful pull the purse strings.

Jamaica’s own Raheem Sterling is a rich man. Sterling rose from the bowels of poverty to become one of England’s top players and even though many Jamaicans were not rooting for England to take home top honours, Jamaica wanted him to score and do well whenever his team took to the pitch. It is unfortunate that he muffed a few chances and never managed to hit the back of the net in the tournament.

In his adopted country of England, Sterling has been vilified by the media. It did not matter that he ran his heart out, created space and chances for his teammates and was a constant thorn in the side of opposing defenders with his speed and high work rate.

There was hardly any mention of the service and stout-hearted defending by Kyle Walker or the workmanlike performances of Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young and the other black players. For the British media it was Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson and Harry McGuire that showed leadership and gave England hope of bringing football home.

A caller to a radio talk show in that country even said he did not want his country’s team to win because there were too many black players and the team was not British enough.

It is not only about sports.

The same sentiment runs true in France. Some French people are not pleased with the racial makeup of the team and have openly voiced it. A French commentator is on record as saying that white midfielder Antoine Greizmann, is the player that makes the French team look ‘good’. Greizmann has had an outstanding tournament but so has Paul Pogba, Ngolo Kante, Samuel Umtiti, Blaise Matuidi and the speedy Kylian Mbappe. This French team has done well due to a compact defense, a clever midfield set up and a devastating attack. All the players, regardless of their race, have stepped up to the plate and delivered but, in France, the darker skinned players will never be afforded the accolades given to their lighter skinned teammates.

Muhammed Ali

In Brazil, midfielder Fernandinho is reported to have been targets of death threats and has been labelled a black monkey after his team’s quarter final exit. That certainly is not sports.

In other sporting arenas the fact that sports is very much rife with politics is evident.

On June 22, 1938 Joe Louis defeated German boxer, Max Schmeling on just 124 seconds. The fight had serious political undertones as Schmeling was a labelled a Nazi and was fighting to prove Adolf Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. Louis, on the other hand, was a black man representing the free world and his win meant a victory over Nazism.

Louis’ exploits in the ring are legendary, but he died a pauper after being forced to fight way into his 40’s to pay his debt. Schmeling in the meantime copped a top executive post with Coca Cola in the United States after world war two and never knew poverty.

The greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali was banned from the sport and threatened with imprisonment for his political stance after declaring he would not be fighting in the Vietnam War as the Vietnamese did not call him a "nigger" and had done nothing to him.

Serena Williams is one of the greatest female players ever to grace a tennis court. She has defeated Maria Sharapova on multiple occasions, however Sharapova is given more lucrative advertising deals and makes more money than Williams.

We all enjoyed the World Cup and it is a sign of progress that more black players are following in the footsteps of the great Pele. However the journey to break down the barriers of racism and xenophobia is still in its infancy.

The beautiful game is not only about sports.

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