Free Movement of Individuals

R.W. Johnson · More on 'soccer colonialism'

I seem to have stirred up a hornet's nest by referring less than respectfully to the notion of ‘soccer colonialism’. Perhaps the subject is broader. No doubt the gladiators who hacked one another to pieces for the delectation of the ancient Romans were heavily drawn from colonised races. What is certainly true is that the team photographs of any of the leading European squads look very different today from the way they did in 1966 when – it's hard now to credit it – neither of the two finalists, England and Germany, had any players of colour in their ranks.

And, as we know, it isn't only football that’s changed, though in cricket England's reliance on Asian bowlers is surpassed by its white South African recruits. British sprinters and hurdlers have almost all been black for a generation now and at the Olympics the sprints are essentially contests within the West African slave diaspora to North America and the Carribean (and hence Britain). This closely parallels the scene in football for it is the diaspora that triumphs, not the stay-at-homes: Nigerians and Ghanaians do not win the Olympic sprints. And this isn't just because superior management, training, facilities and financial back-up do all count: after all, the Carribean countries have no advantages over the West Africans in that respect but Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, the Cubans and even the Bahamians and Barbadians outclass anything West Africa has seen.

Before South Africa's game against France yesterday there was considerable murmuring that the coach wasn't picking players from KwaZulu-Natal (i.e. Zulus) whereas the complaint in France was that no wonder the team was behaving disgracefully because it was full of black and mixed race players, ‘mercenaries’ rather than true Frenchmen. For some reason no one grumbled about this when they won France the World Cup in 1998. A more apt use of the term mercenary might apply to East African runners who migrate to the Gulf states for a large cash payment, adopting Islam and Muslim names so that they can run for Bahrain, Kuwait or the UAE but of course those who use the term ‘soccer colonialism’ want to bash the Europeans, not the Arabs. Similarly, the fact that Brazil has benefitted from so many black players from Pele on draws no adverse comment.

In fact what those who inveigh against ‘soccer colonialism’ are really against is the free movement of individuals. After all, football players aren't like the Roman gladiators – they're not prisoners but rich and pampered men. And they can only be kept in Mozambique, Algeria or Senegal if European countries all adopt the equivalent of a ‘White Australia’ policy – which would draw far greater wrath from the Third World. They're also not mercenaries – their national teams don't pay them, their clubs do – and if it's objected that they only end up with, say, Manchester United because they pay more, this is just as true for Wayne Rooney who would never otherwise have left Everton.

The results? Well, South Africa went out but it was still a fairytale ending, beating the former World Champions in front of a delirious crowd. That Uruguay v. Mexico was unexpectedly hard fought was mainly a tribute to Argentina, for both teams were eager to avoid Señor Messi and his men who went through untroubled by any opponents. And South Korea completed a miserable World Cup for Nigeria while France go home to face a furious press, public and president.


  • 23 June 2010 at 9:41am
    gharris says:
    It's not about impeding the free movement of individuals: it's about correcting the structural inequalities that drain resources (including skilled labour) from the poor south to the rich north. 'Soccer colonialism' is the least of it, but it does exist and it's just one more symptom of a much wider malaise.

  • 23 June 2010 at 10:20am
    Paul Taylor says:
    New UEFA rules require clubs to include a percentage of 'home' players in their squads. This will encourage big clubs to go further in recruiting teenagers from across the world, since players 'developed' as youngsters will count as home players. So we could soon see national sides composed largely of players whose nationality is a consequence of their footballing skills. Would such a team struggle to be seen as representative of the nation? No one apart from le Pen would question whether Zidane and Henry as the children of immigrants are truly French. The cases of Cacau or Eduardo seem more artificial, but there is no threshold to be drawn.

    It can work the other way, many of the Algerian team were born in France, one had never even visited Algeria before being selected. The Irish team has often recruited children of the diaspora.

    Part of the unpleasantness in the immigration debate is the attempt to stigmatise people who move to better their chances. We are supposed to welcome 'genuine' refugees but not economic migrants. So with sport it is seen as positive if the children of immigrants chose to represent their home country but cynical if someone changes nationality to better their chances of playing at a higher level.

  • 23 June 2010 at 1:03pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Sounds rather nationalistic. What's wrong with a player from Ghana, say, taking off to adopt a European nationality in order to play Football at a much higher level and with bigger rewards than he would receive in his home country? Drogba plays for the Ivory Coast and has invested a lot of money in his home country - surely not that different. What about the England cricket team, which includes some players from the former colonies and even one from Ireland. What about them?

  • 23 June 2010 at 1:55pm
    Imperialist says:
    A short programme on BBC World News recently discussed the dilemma Cuba’s elite baseball players face when choosing whether to stay in their home country and play for national pride alone or to abscond to the United States and earns millions of dollars. The decision appears to be, to adopt the vernacular, a no brainer. But the apparent deprivation suffered by Cuba’s sportsmen (ignoring other fundamental injustices in the country) exists in direct correspondence to the sordid materialism of US (and European) sport.

    What rational person could resist exchanging a life of relative obscurity for one of celebrity and immense wealth, however corrupting that decision may turn out to be?

    If Major League Baseball didn’t exist, Cuban athletes would be free, or as free as anyone can be - as well as being heroes and role models. As it is, they are enslaved by an impossible choice.

  • 23 June 2010 at 3:15pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    If you set up a system where one country supposedly "beats" another at football or cricket or whatever, then it's not surprising that there are problems relating to race, colonialism and the nationality of the team members. I can't understand why nobody protests sports nationalism. Although I've never been there and have no connection, I'm supporting Argentina in the world cup; at least they have a good chance of winning. And if the team members grew up in Iceland or Jamaica, then good for them.

    • 23 June 2010 at 5:49pm
      Bob Beck says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Well, I'm certainly nobody (though at least I'm nobody's nobody), and I protest sports nationalism, and other forms thereof. Or, more accurately, do my best to ignore it, and during the most difficult of times -- as for example the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where I live. The pressure to wave flags and the rest was intense. I held out, except...

      ... as I might have predicted, I found myself in much the same position as Colin Firth's Tommy Judd in "Another Country." He says at one point "what I really hate about cricket is that it's such a damned good game." I concluded that what I really hated about the Olympics was that the hockey was so good. But at least I reached this conclusion well before the gold-medal games.

    • 23 June 2010 at 6:43pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Bob Beck
      I enjoyed the Paul Newman film, Slapshot, about ice hockey. If you enjoy it, but don't like the jingoism, you ought to just wave a Finnish flag.

    • 23 June 2010 at 7:19pm
      Bob Beck says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      In hockey, I rather liked the Swiss. Both men's and women's teams played with a lot of heart.

      And since one of my formative influences as a child was the Canada-Soviet series of 1972, which began with a 7-3 shellacking of "Canada's best," I confess to considerable enjoyment watching Canada beat Russia 7-3 in these Olympics.

      Ah, Slapshot. It has its moments, but encapsulates what I dislike about hockey, i.e. goonery and fighting. In that, it well represents its era, the late 1970s, when (in my opinion) North American pro hockey hit a low ebb, from several points of view.

      But then, I don't like diving in soccer, either. What can I say? In the end, it's all show biz -- i.e., there's always something to grumble about, as well as to enjoy.

    • 24 June 2010 at 6:18am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      So why do we bother? Is it to watch the world's best Football teams neutralise each other? What criteria do we adopt in order to make our choice of team to support? I always tend to go for Italy because I once sta in a traffic jam in verona as Italy entered the semis and Italian fans ran all over the car. I had an Italian flag from an Ice cream store handy so they left us in leace.

    • 24 June 2010 at 10:01am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      You'll have to choose your own criteria. Since the whole point is winning, I sometimes choose the team that seems the best, especially if I'm fond of the country. Hence Argentina, this time. But it's a flexible approach. Another criterion might be supporting the team with the best outfits: this time, I thought it was Cameroon.

  • 23 June 2010 at 8:44pm
    pinhut says:
    One further means of extending this 'soccer colonialism' is to examine the nationalities of those coaching the teams from Africa.

    Only one African nation has a homegrown coach, and if you don't know which country without prompting, that kind of makes my point for me.

  • 23 June 2010 at 8:45pm
    pinhut says:
    "Only one African nation..." I am referring only to those African nations represented at the current WC.

    • 24 June 2010 at 12:47pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ pinhut
      That seems as good as any. But as it's a team game I would like to support the team that shows the best morale in the face of a 3-0 deficit and go on to win 4-3.The other possibility might be to support the team with the worst chance to win - so then I would go for England.

    • 24 June 2010 at 2:36pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      All right, but it's never any fun supporting England. Someone should tell them it's only a game. Plus, waving that flag they look like BNP voters. Pathetic outfits, that's half their problem.

    • 24 June 2010 at 7:17pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      I would have supported Italy, sky blue is nice. Germany looked very sinister yesterday, all in black. Why didn't somebody tell them that black uniforms are not the thing that Germans ought to wear. Not today, and not in a Football match.

    • 24 June 2010 at 11:11pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      That's right. I didn't buy a colour telly just to watch England play Germany in b&w.

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