World Cup of complex loyalties

LEONID BERSHIDSKY

We’re not just watching football, we’re also watching a new Europe coalescing despite all the divisions.

The same question concerning loyalties, parallel or divided, was asked not long before the World Cup about Germany’s stars of Turkish origin, Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, after they posed for campaign photos with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Gundogan signed his T-shirt for him, “With respect for my president.” The photo opportunity resulted in a torrent of abuse against both players — and in German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s inviting them for a chat to clarify their allegiance. The players explained that despite a strong connection to their roots, they were proud to represent Germany, but a certain coolness has remained in the air, reinforced by the two-thirds support Erdogan received from Germany’s large Turkish diaspora in last Sunday’s presidential election. Somehow, neither Ozil nor Guendogan has performed well for the German team in its first two games.

In previous years, French nationalists often derided that country’s players’ African and Arab roots (the doyen of the nationalists, Jean-Marie Le Pen, famously accused them of not being able to sing La Marsellaise because they’re foreigners). The French government, for its part, championed the team as a (somewhat deceptive) example of successful integration. But now the suspicion of incomplete loyalties has moved well beyond France, to places that weren’t known for it before.

In Sweden, whose team was led brilliantly for a generation by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, son of a Bosnian Muslim immigrant, Jimmy Durmaz, an Assyrian whose family had immigrated from Turkey, faced online racial abuse after making a mistake in Sweden’s game against Germany last Saturday which led to Germany’s last-minute goal. The whole Sweden team was moved to record a video to show solidarity with Durmaz, who identified himself in the clip as a proud Swede. But Sweden, which has, in recent years, accepted more immigrants per capita than any other European country, likely hasn’t seen the last of the ugly sentiment of which Durmaz was only an incidental target. The far right Sweden Democrats party is at historic highs in the polls.

One could talk, as many nationalists do, of a decline of Europe, a watering-down of identities, a reduced value of flags and symbols. As I watch the World Cup, however, I take a more optimistic view of the current European reality. Though allegiances have grown, and are growing, ever more complex, flags also take on new meanings. For Shaqiri, the Swiss one stands for compassion. To Ozil and Gundogan, the German one signifies the training and selection system that ensured successful careers, which wouldn’t have been a given elsewhere.

In Sweden, home to proud patriot Durmaz, a club founded by his fellow Assyrians, Assyriska FF, has even played in the nation’s top division.

Complexity isn’t a problem, it’s an advantage. If Albanians cheer for Shaqiri or Xhaka, Swiss fans don’t stand to lose anything. If Turks root for Gundogan, that’s Germany’s gain. Though Fifa may rightly frown at the various political displays, racism rears its head from time to time and loyalties are understandably questioned, we’re not just watching football, we’re also watching a new Europe coalescing despite all the divisions.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. Source:  Bloomberg