This weekend I sat in my local bar in Brooklyn, New York and, alongside an enthusiastic and racially diverse group of English fans, watched England defeat Sweden to advance to the World Cup semi-finals.
That shared moment of sporting pride made me reflect on how the World Cup offers an utterly different worldview from that of xenophobic political leaders, who have been in the news far too much recently.
France, Belgium, and England, the highest FIFA ranked teams remaining in the competition, also reflect high standards in diversity, with many of their star players first and second-generation immigrants. Six of England’s starting line-up against Sweden have parents of non-English heritage. The majority of France’s team come from immigrant communities, including the breakout star striker Kylien Mbappe, the French-born son of a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother. Romelu Lukaku of Belgium, born in Antwerp to Congolese parents, has electrified crowds with his forward runs. Again, he is just one of many Belgian players born to immigrant parents.
Many fans have been keen to point out that these European teams would not have been able to get within touching distance of the World Cup trophy without the benefits of immigration. Yet we are currently living through an age of appalling anti-immigrant policy. Europe is losing its moral compass in its effort to block asylum seekers and migrants coming across the Mediterranean, while Donald Trump’s government removes children from their asylum-seeking parents or sends families fleeing violence to indefinite detention.
And, both in Europe and the US, political leaders use xenophobic rhetoric to stoke fears of “the other” – migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, Muslims, those with darker skin – through false or exaggerated arguments about crime, cultural dislocation or economic impact.
Before setting off for Europe this week, President Donald Trump told the Washington Post that “immigration is destroying Europe as we know it and it is very sad to be witness to what is happening”.
I wish Donald Trump would listen to Gareth Southgate, the England manager, who captured the mood of many when he said: “we are a team with our diversity and youth that represents modern England”. Given some European politicians’ ugly anti-immigrant attitudes, Southgate’s obvious pride at his team’s ethnic diversity is a breath of fresh air.
Moreover, with mainstream European politicians like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron willing to celebrate the benefits that immigration can bring, along with potential World Cup heroes like Southgate, there is a sporting chance that football fans around Europe will think more positively about it long after the final whistle blows in Moscow.