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.
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.
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.