Monday, July 2, 2012

Euro 2012 reflects a new multi-ethnic Europe

If you were following this year's European football championships, one thing you may have noticed was that some of the team line-ups are starting to reflect the shifting demographics of 21st-century European nations. Most teams, including some you wouldn't expect, feature players of "non-indigenous" backgrounds. This is notable at a tournament in which racism from fans has been an ongoing concern.

Portugal's Silvestre Varela
Of course, some countries have been reflecting this for a while. Black players have been a ever-increasing feature of the English team since the late 70s. The Netherlands too has featured many players of Moroccan, Indonesian and notable Afro-Caribbean roots: fully a third of the Dutch squad that came 4th in the 1998 World Cup was of Surinamese descent. The French team that won that same World Cup was well-known for its diverse lineup that included numerous black African and Caribbean players, two players with Armenian surnames, and was led by the ethnically Algerian maestro Zinedine Zidane. Around half the players in the current squad have a black or North African background. Portugal too has long featured players of African and Brazilian descent in its national teams, from the great Eusebio (born in Mozambique) in the 60s, to the likes of Nani and Silvestre Varela (Cape Verdean), Pepe and Bruno Alves (Brazilian) today.

Of course, that ethnic mix is largely a result of the colonial endeavours of those four nations. Interestingly, Spain is an outlier here - it has been a far greater exporter than importer of people from its former colonies, so black Spanish players have been few and far between. Their current squad does however include David Silva, who has Japanese ancestry on his mother's side.
Germans Sami Khedira (left) and Jerome Boateng (right)

Over the last decade, a few other European nations have featured players from immigrant backgrounds. The two stars of Sweden's national team in this time have been Henrik Larsson (whose father was Cape Verdean) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (with Bosnian and Croatian parents). Germany's squad looks radically different to that of 20 years ago; it's current members claim ancestry from Turkey (Mesut Ozil), Ghana (Jerome Boateng), Poland (Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose), Spain (Mario Gomez) and Tunisia (Sami Khedira). Switzerland did not appear at this year's Euros, but its current team features numerous ethnic Albanians, Africans and others.
Mario Balotelli (centre)

Now we are seeing this diversity entering the lineups of other nations which have traditionally not been as diverse.

One of the best-known figures in the Italian squad is the gifted but temperamental young striker Mario Balotelli, who was born to Ghanaian immigrants but adopted at a young age by an Italian couple. But also in the squad is the defender Angelo Ogbonna, born in Torino of Nigerian parentage.
Greece features Jose Holebas, a left midfielder who was born in Germany to a Greek father and Uruguayan mother.
Theodor Gebre Selassie of the Czech Republic
One player whose performances at the tournament attracted attention is right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie of the Czech Republic. His mother is ethnically Czech, and his father an Ethiopian who visited the country when both were under Communist rule.

Croatia has a Brazilian player in its ranks - striker Eduardo da Silva -but he represents a different kind of non-indigenous player, the professional footballer who has adopted another nationality as an adult. Spain, Italy and Germany have also featured nationalized Brazilians before, and a cynic would say that such players are motivated less by love for their adopted country and more by the opportunity to play international football that they would not get for the footballing powerhouse that is Brazil.


  1. I noticed that in the England starting line-up for a couple of their matches that six out of eleven were black - an awesome sight since as recently as 25 years ago, black British players were being horribly abused when they put on the England shirt.

    Balotelli is an especially important figure in the Italian national team, and his experience shows how important the role of sportsmen is in facilitating the acceptance of minorities.

    He has been subject to some pretty major racial abuse from fans of opposing as well as his own club team, and many fans were outspoken about being against him representing Italy because of his race. Yet, his performance against Germany in the semi-final made him a darling of the press and a hero to the Italian fans.

    You may also find this interesting; Irish/Chinese Gaelic football player experiencing racial abuse from other players....

    Also, is there much representation of minorities in Australian professional sports? I know that some indigenous people have made it into Aussie (no!) rules football, and a black player has represented the cricket team, but is it prevalent in domestic sports?

    1. Balotelli is going to cop abuse for his race, but he'll also cop it for being an absolute head case. His antics on and off the pitch are amusing one minute, obnoxious the next. So he's an interesting figure to be the spearhead of racial tolerance in Italian football, since he can inspire a lot of ill-will for reasons that are not race-related.

      Regarding Australian sports, our soccer team is dominated by white ethnic minorities - at the 2006 World Cup about a third of the team had Croatian parentage. The sport has had a rapidly increasing following since then, so we are seeing more and more people getting into it from Anglo backgroudns who in a previous generation would have flocked to other sports.
      Rugby has a huge Pacific Islander presence, far out of proportion to their numbers in the general population.
      Our National Basketball League has one Asian player, Darren Ng, who is also a practising doctor. How Asian is that?
      In cricket, there has been one guy of Pakistani background to make the national team recently, and I predict that South Asian players will have an increased presence in the team in coming years.
      Another likelihood is seeing a few Sudanese guys in the national basketball team in the near future.

    2. I also vaguely remember seeing some Asian guys playing in the A-League, but I think that they were imports and not Australians by birth or migration.

      True about Balotelli, he is a controversial figure but in the big picture his type of character may be essential to bring about the overall acceptance of minorities into Italian football. It's a little bit like Jack Johnson who, even though he was thought of as an uncontrollable and scary black athlete that people both loved to watch and hate, but could never accept because of his defiant attitude, the contrast in people's memories of him compared to the polite and wholesome Joe Louis made it easier for America to support the latter.

    3. Interesting point about Jack Johnson. Balotelli is problematic in such a role because in Italy, so many of the stereotypes about Africans revolve around them being primitive and stupid - witness the monkey chants and the like. As a guy who may well have a screw loose upstairs, perhaps he plays too much into some of those pre-existing stereotypes.
      Then again, there have been guys as eloquent and intelligent as Lilian Thuram plying their trade at Juventus for years and that hasn't changed the way racists think.

  2. it was not a awesome play from spain , they just show bulls energy.when the times going up itally was losing thier enrgy and confident , first goal was a bullet to italian mates.

  3. why did the azzuri lose. )))):

    1. I'm no expert, but I think it was because Spain are the best team in the world and Italy aren't.