This Year’s World Cup Is a Tale of Cultural Blending, Written by Immigrants

The World Cup may seem like a celebration of tribalism, with all the national flags, anthems, and pride on display. But look closer. The story of this World Cup, which concludes Sunday with a championship match between France and Croatia, has been written by immigrants. European national teams may have dominated the event—all four semifinalist sides hailed from Europe, as did six of the eight quarterfinalists—but the teams themselves are anything but ethnic monoliths. This year's tournament is a tale of cultural blending.

French forward Kylian Mbappe has been the breakout star of the tournament and a favorite to win the Golden Ball as the World Cup's most valuable player. His father is from Cameroon and his mother came to France from Algeria. Samuel Umtiti, who scored the game-winning goal in France's semifinal victory over Belgium, was born in Cameroon. France's standout midfielders, N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, are the children of Malinese and Guinean immigrants, respectively.

Nearly half the English team, which captured much attention with its run to the semifinals, are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Perhaps none have a story as compelling as Jamaican-born Raheem Sterling, whose mother worked janitorial jobs after moving to England when her son was just 5 years old.

"I'll never forget waking up at five in the morning before school and helping her clean the toilets at the hotel in Stonebridge," he told The Players Tribune last month. "England is still a place where a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream."

This World Cup's most thrilling game—Belgium's wild second-half comeback from two goals behind to defeat Japan in the second round—was a joint effort of natives and immigrants. It's hard to find a player with a more traditionally Belgian name than Jan Vertonghen, who scored the first goal to spark the rally. But without a perfectly placed header from Marouane Fellaini and a last-second goal by Nacer Chadli, both of whom were born to Moroccan parents, the comeback would have fallen short. Belgium's run to the semifinals would not have been possible without four goals from Romelu Lukaku, whose parents emigrated from Congo and were so poor that he recalls countless childhood lunches consisting of bread and watery milk.

Swiss-born Ivan Rakitić scored the game-winning goal in two of Croatia's three come-from-behind wins that helped the tiny Balkan nation reach its first-ever World Cup final. He is one of four foreign-born players representing Croatia at the tournament.

The Swiss-Balkan pipeline runs in both directions. A pair of players, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, born to parents who fled the ethnic unrest and civil war in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, helped key a surprising run to the second round for Switzerland, one of the few Western European nations without much of a history of football glory.

The story has a darker side too. After scoring goals against Serbia, both flashed Albanian double-eagle signs with their hands, which nearly led to both players getting suspended. The incident is a reminder that immigrants do not leave their old customs, sympathies, and rivalries at the door when they settle somewhere new.

The free flow of people across national borders can bring danger. But the anti-immigrant parties that highlight (and exaggerate) those dangers ignore the benefits that immigration also brings. Newcomers enliven existing culture while also providing valuable labor, often in jobs that natives refuse to do. In places like Europe, with its falling birth rates, they lift a nation's population, and its tax coffers. And they produce the next generation of football stars too.

That's not why the parents of this year's World Cup stars moved to England or Belgium or anywhere else. When she was scrubbing toilets, Sterling's mum probably didn't imagine her son would one day be a star on his adopted nation's football team—and Lulaku's parents, watering down the milk to make it last longer, probably didn't dream so big either. But surely they believed they were giving their children a shot at something better than what they would have had otherwise.

You probably wouldn't know their names if Raheem and Romelu had gone on to start successful business or if they did nothing more than create a moderately better life for their own kids. That they are international soccer stars is something of a happy accident, but those other outcomes—paths that millions of other immigrants around the world have anonymously followed—would arguably have done even more to boost their new homelands.

France's immigrant-heavy lineup has drawn comparisons to that nation's 1998 World Cup squad, which this year's team will try on Sunday to join as World Cup champions. For its time, that team was surprisingly diverse, with players hailing from France, the Caribbean, and several African nations.

That's now the norm, rather than the exception, for the world's top teams. An analysis by The Washington Post found that 82 of the more than 700 players on this year's World Cup rosters represent countries where they were not born. That's possible, in part, because the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has looser rules about which nations players can represent than, say, the International Olympic Committee. Once a soccer player makes one appearance on the roster of a national team, he cannot transfer to another. But before that first appearance, players are eligible for any nation where they are citizens, or for countries where their parents have citizenship, and in some circumstances even for their grandparents' lands. Belgian midfielder Adnan Januzaj may have been eligible for as many as seven different national teams, according to the Post.

That makes modern international football less a test of national bloodlines and more a competition over who has the best melting pot. "In England we've spent a bit of time being lost as to what our modern identity is, and I think as a team we represent that modern identity," English coach Gareth Southgate told ITV before the tournament started.

After England's best World Cup run since 1990, few could argue that diversity was a problem for the team.

America did not qualify for this World Cup this year. Our best hope to avoid that shame in 2022 rests with young players like Christian Pulisic, whose grandparents came to America from what is now Croatia, and Timothy Weah, who was born in New York to Liberian parents. (His father is currently president of the west African nation.) It may rest with future stars whose parents are just now trying to find their way here, struggling to scratch out a life.

They'll be American, just like Lukaku is a Belgian.

"I grew up in Antwerp, and Liège and Brussels. I dreamed of playing for Anderlecht," Lukaku writes in a self-profile for The Players Tribune. "I'll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch, and I'll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighborhood we're in. I'm Belgian. We're all Belgian. That's what makes this country cool, right?"

That's what makes the World Cup cool, too.

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