Sports

The World Cup shows our language has not caught up with reality

For statements of the national obvious, theres no beating the World Cup. It was just as well Brazil exited when they did, because if I had to hear samba football to describe eleven square-footed oafs passing the ball over the sideline yet again or dribbling it out of play one more time, I would have had to go down clutching my leg and screaming in agony. One more description of tiki-taka for a Spanish team who simply couldnt decide what to do, and Id have had to eliminate myself on penalties.

Speaking our language: Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, and Samuel Umtiti sining the French anthem.

Photo: AP

Among people watching the World Cup, national stereotypes come in as substitutes for thought well before the second half. Take Sundays finalists. France have been praised for the blend of their Gallic flair (theyre French) and their athleticism (most are also African), as if civilisation were a marvel of balancing brain and brawn. Yet when you look at the French play, the active characteristic of their game has been its ruthless, machine-like efficiency, which would be called Teutonic if only they made things easier for everyone and wore a different shirt. Paul Pogbas energy and endeavour makes him the natural heir to his coach Didier Deschamps, only you dont hear it often because Pogba is a tall black man whereas Deschamps is a short white man. France are disciplined, methodical, systematic, adjectives which are verboten when speaking of the French. Their opponents Croatia? Ah yes, that mercurial, tempestuous Balkan brilliance, a portrait undone only by the fact that they have ground out four hours in the past week of pure northern protestant grit. Still brilliant, yes, but they have been hardest-working men in Russia. It would make things much easier if they were Dutch. If they were Aussies, or more confusingly still Croatian-Australians, the Hansonites would blow a collective foofer valve trying to understand it.

Sometimes the stereotype is a useful tool for circumventing the uncomfortable, as with Englands implausible progression to the semi-finals. A lot was said about the spirit and unity of Gareth Southgates team, which they no doubt gained as a result of winning through while Westminster was yanking itself apart. But England made a World Cup semi-final by virtue of beating Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden, and demonstrated the Peter Principle once they came up against one of the top teams. Lucky England? No, that doesnt fit. England are never lucky. It wasnt a soft draw, it was good old John Bull.

What all this easy labelling obscures is something very interesting about nationality in football, so embedded it has become almost too obvious to see. Individual qualification for nations in FIFA tournaments – once a player has represented a country as an adult, he or she is committed to that country and that alone for life – is more strict than in almost any other international sport, and its rigidity is more significant today than ever. The policy was developed over many years, reaching its present form in 2008 to minimise nation-switching. It is a policy that both embraces the contemporary world, by assisting the passage towards irrelevance of the equation of nationality with race and ethnicity which cost tens of millions of lives in the last century, while also rejecting aspects of the modern world by resisting the argument of increasing flows of adults and children across borders throughout the course of their lives.

In most other big international sports, from the Olympic events to cricket and rugby, players can choose to switch nations at any stage of life. Usually they do so with regret, and to say they are opportunists is a slander of misunderstanding. Qualification periods must be served after they move their residence, to confirm the difficulty of the task and to retain the value of the new colours – these are countries, not clubs – but it is both possible and commonplace. We mock all those South Africans playing cricket for England and have self-mocked our new Australians ever since Aussie Joe Bugner, but weve been at it for a long time. Back in 1878, the cricketer Billy Midwinter was the subject of a car chase across London between Australias captain Dave Gregory and the MCCs Dr W.G. Grace, as each tried to physically snatch the Gloucestershire-born Midwinter for their country. Midwinter ended up playing for both.

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Its an old story, but ultimately it is a serious matter for anyone to leave their country of birth and equally serious for their new country to accept them. Sport can often be a symbol of acceptance and inclusion, but it can also let us off the moral hook. Sport enables countries to congratulate ourselves on being an open and accepting lot, when our governments are anything but. Sport as a PR exercise is nothing new either.

FIFAs qualification rules are important because they give an added authenticity to the visible multiculturalism on the field. These teams have not been assembled by money. They are not Real Madrid, PSG or Juventus. They are national representatives, and their varying races and ethnicities argue forcefully against the idea that nation, race and ethnicity are aligned. The racial make-up of Frances team as long been a finger in the eye for the Front National, just as Englands has turned its archaic white supremacist supporters from a menace into a laughing stock. Someone pointed out that France is the last remaining African team in this World Cup, as its squad includes three players who were born or grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, three in Senegal, two in Cameroon, and one each in Congo, Guinea, Togo, Mali, Morocco and Algeria. But because of the well-known tightness of FIFAs rules, those 14 players are comfortably French and nothing but French. Where so many European countries are taking in migrants of all ages from Africa and the Middle East, it has become a point of pride for teams such as Belgium to reflect their rainbow populations. Football does not solve one single real-world problem, but by blocking the flag of convenience option, it reminds a troubled country that Romelo Lukaku, born in Antwerp, is not a Belgian-African or an African-Belgian, but a Belgian.

If FIFA is going to be so strict, why not go all the way? Seventeen years of age might seem a random point at which to draw the line. If seventeen determines sporting origins, then Greg Inglis is indeed a Queenslander. FIFA could have enforced a birth rule, and then really hammer the point home that home-bred people come in every colour. But that would be to retrospectively give children the same agency as adults. Some of these men were young boys when their families moved. Some were boys when their families allowed them to move to enhance their prospects in life. Whatever the circumstances, the difference in the powers of children and adults is preserved by the seventeen-years rule.

Football, I think, has been getting this right. But the sport is still watched by millions who will pass comment on seeing an African team playing a European team on Sunday night. What remains is for language to catch up with reality. When we see a tremendously fit and thoroughly drilled French team, we dont have to try to contort our heads around how their efficiency makes them almost Germanic or twist them into the euphemistic cloak of athleticism. They are simply very organised and fit professional footballers. When they take on a Croatian team that has been a wonder of solid effort and consistent will-power, we dont have to square it with what many of us thought we knew about Balkan clubs in Sydney and Melbourne, because whatever it was we thought, if it relied on national stereotyping we were certainly unqualified.

Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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