Berlin to Brazil: Diversity Scores in Football

June 26th, 2014

Kids playing soccer

The sudden proliferation of national flags other than the Maple Leaf in Toronto is the enthusiastic reaction to the football World Cup in Brazil. While some may question this reassertion of identities left behind, this multicultural Canadian city is just reflecting the global reach of a game that defies national boundaries and even earth’s gravitational pull.

Starting Thursday, as 32 national teams representing the best in football vie for supremacy at the once-in-every-four-year event, the beautiful game makes fans of us all.

“The ‘cup of cups,’ as we affectionately call it, will also be the cup for peace and against racism, the cup for inclusion and against all forms of discrimination, the cup for tolerance, dialogue, understanding and sustainability,” wrote Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, in an article urging visiting fans to view up-close her country’s cultural diversity and ethnic and religious harmony among other things.

But can football be a panacea for some of the ills described by President Rousseff? Can it fight racism, for instance? At the 2nd International Cities of Migration conference held in Berlin last week, two prolific thinkers weighed in on the motion Be it resolved professional football is powerless to end racism.

Sites of integration

Arguing for the motion, Sunder Katwala, Director, British Future, a London think tank, said the issue of racism has more or less been resolved within professional clubs as they have become sites of integration. “We have won the argument in the stadium, but not outside of it.”

He was afraid that while football may spearhead the fight against racism, it could remain the exception. “Anti-racism messages tend to get ignored. It is like the in-flight safety message we hear in airplanes. We filter it out.”

Pointing out the diversity in team compositions, Katwala said two-thirds of the 750 players in the current world cup are migrants playing outside of their country of origin. Only the Russian team of 23 players can be considered pure laine. “But then their coach is Italian!”

Katwala was of the opinion that despite the very diversity many teams thrive on, professional football itself has to trudge a very long way before becoming more inclusive. “The stadium should look like the city,” he said alluding to the expensive tickets that keep away poorer, marginalized sections of society from games. “If we are going to do the work [against racism], we have to make the links.”

‘A vision, an opportunity’

Vigorously defending the other side of the debate, David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, asked “if you’re not going to football, where else could you go to implement anti-racism campaigns?” He said football provides us a glimpse of a society that we could share. There is a level playing field where we pick players based of their talent and not where they come from. “It gives us a vision…an opportunity to staking your place in society.”

Goldblatt, who also teaches politics at Pitzer College, London, said football provides us the platform to have the kind of conversations we need to be having when it comes to racism and diversity. “You put it on the pages of the sports press, suddenly they become relevant, comprehensible and important. And until we have that kind of conversations, we are going nowhere.”

The “cup of cups” is one such space to celebrate the values of fair play and peaceful coexistence among all peoples. It sure is a celebration of what diversity and being global is all about.

Enjoy the games and flaunt your flags.

Related:

This article was first published as a Maytree Conversations blog post.

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