The Truth Behind the World Cup’s Post-Racial Image

The world's biggest sporting event hasn't always been the great model of interracial harmony its official history would have you believe -- and some tensions remain.

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Over the past two weeks, the 2010 FIFA World Cup has been held up as an ideal of racial harmony. The soccer tournament is taking place in South Africa, a country that has undergone a largely peaceful transformation from racial apartheid to democracy. Teams from England and France are models of diversity, with the latter consistently starting a majority of non-white players. Black and white players hug and kiss each other when a goal is scored. Mexico features a player whose father is a black Brazilian and a black player scored for Switzerland in its upset 1-0 win over Spain.

Yet, soccer and the World Cup have not always been paragons of post-racial enlightenment. The story of race in the world’s most popular sport is far more complex and has a bitter side. It is a story, like American athletics, of exclusion, evolution and gradual acceptance. Even today, the makeup of some teams at the World Cup — and the recent events involving the French team — reflects unresolved racial tensions in their home countries.

All parties in the collapse of the French team at the World Cup have avoided any mention of race, a common instinct in France, but there are bound to be racial issues when most of the players involved in a rebellion against management over the expulsion of teammate Nicolas Anelka are black and the entire hierarchy of French soccer is pure white.

Brazil‘s Road to the Rainbow Model

Brazil has long been held as the standard bearer for racial harmony at the World Cup. Before the term “multiracial” came into common use, the blue, green and yellow jersey was worn on a rainbow of skin colors. But Brazilian “futebol” was not always the model of equal opportunity it is today. Nurtured in elite private clubs at the start of the 20th century, Brazilian soccer was rigidly segregated, with many top clubs barring blacks as players. Brazil sent an all-white team to the first World Cup in 1930 and just one black player to the 1934 event. Many of the barriers fell over time and the best Brazilian player ever was a black man: Pelé. But only now is Brazil beginning to confront the complex racial hierarchies that persist off the soccer field.

Europe‘s Identity Crisis

That guy’s German? And that guy’s Slovenian? Four decades ago, European teams at the World Cup were ethnically homogeneous. Everybody on a German team looked, well, German. But immigration has also changed Europe, and the racial diversity that one sees on the streets of London, Paris, Lisbon and Berlin is reflected in most Western European teams. France won the 1998 World Cup with eight black and Arab players. In 2002, Poland featured a Nigerian immigrant, Emmanuel Olisadebe, and Sweden’s most famous player is arguably Henrik Laarson, whose father was from Cape Verde. Diversity can be surprising to an American viewer who has not kept up with demographic complexities — like seeing black Uruguayans or the black Swiss, Gelsen Fernandes, who scored the goal in the huge surprise victory over Spain on June 16.

Diversity has spread further in 2010. England’s current team often starts five or six black players, and even Germany, which has been slow to embrace its immigrant population, has featured players with Polish, Turkish and Tunisian roots and one naturalized black Brazilian in this World Cup. The Netherlands has benefitted for decades from a pool of talent drawn from its former colonies in the Caribbean and Indonesia, even though it has yet to perform to expectations. Part of the Dutch problem has oft-times centered on keeping a racial balance on its team. With the pressure to win, that consideration has become less and less important over time and more black and brown faces now appear in the Dutch lineup.