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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Getty Images

America‘s Progress

In the famous U.S. upset of England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup, a player from Haiti scored the winning goal. But until the 1990s, U.S. national teams — drawn mostly from college players — were overwhelmingly white. In the late 1970s, I saw the U.S. national team play the old Soviet Union in San Francisco. The Communist team — featuring several Asians — was more diverse than the Yanks. That has changed over the years, beginning with Desmond Armstrong on the 1990 U.S. national team and Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart, both biracial, on the 1994 squad. Today, six of the 23 players on the 2010 U.S. World Cup team are black and three are Hispanic; with Jozy Altidore, the son of Haitian immigrants, as a real scoring threat and Tim Howard as one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament.

A European Holdout

Racism is still an issue in soccer away from the World Cup. Many blacks from Africa or Latin America star in the top European leagues. Other non-white players are natives of Europe, the children of immigrants. But acceptance can be iffy: Black players have been serenaded with monkey chants and boos and subjected to racial abuse and violence in Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe. Black team managers and coaches anywhere in Europe are still as rare as African-American head coaches in Division One football (that other football).

Countries that have not embraced the concept of the melting pot show it in their rosters. Italy is one of the countries where immigration has long been a contentious issue. It’s not surprising that Italy’s World Cup team is also a conspicuous holdout against the demographic trends, sending an all-white team to South Africa. While Mario Liverani, of Somali origin, was the first black player on the Italian national team, no black player has ever been chosen for the senior Italian World Cup squad. Mario Balotelli is a talented 19-year-old striker for Inter Milan who was born in Palermo. He has been subjected to chants of “A black can’t be truly Italian,” while playing in Italy’s Serie A. Despite his explosive talents, Balotelli, who does star on the Italian under-21 team, was left off Italy’s World Cup team this year. If Italy fails to do well in the World Cup, Italian sports officials may begin to see the value of racial diversity as a way to expand the pool of talent.

Africa‘s Challenge

One hot topic at this year’s World Cup has been the failure of African teams. Africa campaigned a long time to get a team invited to the World Cup. FIFA finally gave the continent one spot in 1970, which went to Morocco after a playoff among African teams. Only two African teams have made it to the quarterfinal in the World Cup: Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002). At this World Cup, the performance of African teams has been dismal, with only one victory and four ties in 12 matches so far.

Commentators blame a “lack of discipline” for the poor showing by Africa, which sounds like a facile stereotype. The more provocative analysis suggests that the European coaches hired, many within a few months of the tournament, to lead five of the six African teams seem to have largely taken away the panache and creativity that characterized African teams in past World Cups. To succeed on the world stage, African teams may have to discover a blend of European “discipline” and the African flair that they have displayed in past decades. Until that hybridization takes place, the world championship trophy will continue to shuttle between Western Europe and Latin America — unless, of course, the United States gets to the podium first.

Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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