Football World Cup: An opportunity to wake up to global politics
In June, Romelu Lukaku spoke on the Players’ Tribune. It was titled ‘I’ve Got Some Things to Say.’
“When things were going well, I was reading newspaper articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker,” said the Manchester United forward. “When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”
Lucid, he painted the image of his family’s struggles with poverty. For Lukaku every game was a final, every moment powerful. He trained and went on to become one of Belgium’s finest football players. Belgium’s policy to use football to integrate migrants not only gave it the football team it desired, but also the football experience we, the viewers, have reveled in through World Cup 2018.
The Guardian reported on Monday that in total, 23 players – exactly 50% – in France and Belgium’s teams can trace their ancestry to Africa.
Belgium ruled Congo till 1960. In 1958, an exhibition in Belgium showcased the last “human zoo”—people from Congo kept in enclosures practicing their traditional arts while the colonial race watched. This was a way to highlight Belgium’s conquest—plunder of—Congo during Belgian rule.
This is not to suggest that Belgium was alone in colonizing and destroying African nations. France also colonized, among many others, Cameroon and Algeria, a mix of whose nationalities gave birth to the French football star, Kylian Mbappé. Strategic revolutions by the people of these nations led to the ousting of colonial power and eventual self determination. England and Spain are the other major colonizers who stripped dry much of the world’s indigenous resources, the latter particularly, and violently, in Latin America (read ‘Open Veins of Latin America’ by Eduardo Galeno for reference).
Each of these countries now hires players from their previously colonized nations not just for ‘integration’ but also to up their game. Their traditional colonizing of resources give them the vantage of setting up superior sporting facilities, training coaches, equipment and robust democracies for moulding mindful sportspersons.
Not so for the post colonial world. This World Cup sees no African, Asian or South American teams in the semis or finals. When they have come up historically, it has been through the genius of players, a team spirit for the nation garnished with the prayers of the post colonial world. Colonization of these nations, as residents here are well acquainted with, has left them little space for democracy to develop, drowning them in new conflicts, capitalist colonization, entrenched poverty and violence. How sports were developed in these circumstances is an experience as heart wrenching as Romelu Lukaku’s testimony.
So, should we stop watching football? Not really. While enjoying popcorn as Lionel Messi (not this year anymore), Lukaku or Mbappé and Dele Alli, engage us with their skills, the Football World Cup gives us the opportunity, a tool, to wake up to politics and take note of our own standing in its global scheme. Football has opened a window for many colonial nations to attempt addressing the injustices of their past (even though racism continues); there is much to learn in it for post colonial nations too that struggle with their own injustices.
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