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#WorldCupSyllabus

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I have been unusually transfixed by this year’s World Cup, where histories of European identity and empire are so clearly on display. [updated 15 July]

We’re headed into the last week, and the final four teams are all European–all NATO members, actually, and even all EU members (though England may not be for long). France, Belgium, and England have teams that showcase their inescapable imperial legacies–and Croatia’s team is not without its own thorny national politics.

Yes, FIFA is enormously corrupt. Yes, world sporting events can be a display case for nationalism’s divisiveness, jingoism, and dangerous power.

And certainly, when it comes to the multiracial teams of the former imperial powers, there are a lot of big questions and concerns. Racism and discrimination are systemic in these countries. Idolizing a few exceptional men of color–especially in sport–can reinforce policies that devalue human lives and empty citizenship of real meaning for those who do not leap over the highest possible bars of talent. France in particular stands as proof that an iconic World Cup victory, which celebrated the “Black-Blanc-Beur” (Black, White, and North African) team as the new French tricolor, hardly guarantees a national commitment to overcoming suburban segregation or professional/educational/electoral discrimination. We can’t read too much, or too triumphantly, into a multiracial football team.

Yet there is plenty worth recognizing in these teams. They make us ask questions about what it means to be French or Belgian or Croatian or English or any other nationality. They offer us a vision of what postcoloniality can be. They remind us that glory and greatness do not come from exclusion. These footballers also set goals for us: let’s create cabinets and legislatures and city councils and board rooms that are this representative of the societies we have built (but with women too, of course).

There’s been a flourishing field of analysis on these semi-finalist teams. Here are some of my favorite reads so far (with the expected unevenness of a French historian who lived in Brussels for awhile). Please add more links in the comments!

World Cup Syllabus – Summer 2018

For some broader analysis of Afro-European players in France and Belgium, start with Laurent Dubois’s piece here (and if you really want to dive into the imperial history of the game, read his book, Soccer Empire). Afshin Molavi also considers what it means that a diverse team from France or Belgium will play in the final.

The NYT looks into how the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris became some of the richest soccer recruiting grounds in the world (addition: Human Rights Watch has a video about a football team for unaccompanied migrant children in Paris and Ezra Kline investigates how France produced 50 players in this year’s World Cup). Paul Silverstein describes how the World Cup reveals the role of race, Islam, and social anxieties in contemporary France (I recommend his books too). Kahled Beydoun makes a case for France as an African team (update: Karen Attiah explains why this might be problematic). Gregory Pierrot points out that Black France has been a reality for centuries and declares that “the most French man in the world right now is a black kid called Kylian Mbappé.” Addition: Dubois on the ghosts of 1998.

On Belgium, Dubois offers excellent context for the creation of this year’s team–and waxes lyrical on the winning goal from their Round 16 victory over Japan. Addition: here’s Romelu Lukaku telling his own story; most memorable line,

If you don’t like the way I play, that’s fine. But I was born here. I grew up in Antwerp, and Liège and Brussels. I dreamed of playing for Anderlecht. I dreamed of being Vincent Kompany. I’ll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch, and I’ll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighborhood we’re in. / I’m Belgian. / We’re all Belgian. That’s what makes this country cool, right?

The Guardian has pieces about how the England team embodies the anti-Brexit camp and how its makeup and attitude distinguish it from earlier squads. Updates: Harry Stopes on the racist coverage of Raheem Sterling’s career and Sterling in his own words.

Added: discussion of the Belgium-England match for third as the Brexit Derby (which Belgium won handily, 2-0).

Dario Brentin has a great thread on Croatian football and politics (with links to his scholarship). The Croatian Football Federation is embroiled in corruption scandals. Meanwhile, player Domagoj Vida was nearly banned from the semi-final game for cheering “glory to Ukraine” after their victory over Russia (update: assistant coach Ognjen Vukojevic was fired for this incident). Addition: Kanishk Tharoor explains how the experience of rooting for Croatia in the final shows how “Every World Cup extends the possibility of seeing that “secret spell”—the economic and political hierarchy of the world reflected in sport—undone.”

Finally, while they didn’t make it past the group stage, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the make-up of the Moroccan team, which had 17 of 23 players born outside the country. Tariq Panja discusses why dual-national players chose not to play on European teams–and it’s worth asking why the conversation seems so different when players pick an African team than when we talk about European players with African roots.

More additions, from teams not in the semifinals

Shervin Malekzadeh on the British media’s infatuation with the Iranian team’s good looks, “for once the revolution was inscribed on male rather than female bodies.”

Guardian on the drama between Swiss players of Kosovar descent in the game against Serbia.

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