The immigrant takeover of European football

European football leagues are amongst the most watched sporting tournaments, but somehow they have become a haven for immigrants.


Nathan Fulgado, Writer

Image Source: Telegraph

When you look at football from the perspective of it being a global phenomenon, you will naturally look at the FIFA World Cup, and the various leagues and tournaments held around the world, ranging from the Premier League, to the Indian Super League. The effects of globalisation have taken football to every corner of the globe. Even the remotest countries take part in FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Seeing sub-Saharan countries battle it out to qualify and watching India struggle to achieve relevancy in a sport like football is in fact a wholesome and sometimes heart-wrenching story. What skips past people’s minds is that globalisation has also changed the scenario of football on a much larger scale, i.e., the immigrant takeover of European football.

There’s no doubt that European football competitions are the most viewed competitions in the world, which is why the takeover of European football by immigrants is an occurrence that people should be aware about. The 2018 FIFA World Cup was a brilliant example of this phenomenon going unnoticed. 87 percent of France’s World Cup winning team were immigrants or succeeding generations of immigrants. That included Paul Pogba, who scored France’s third in the final against Croatia. Pogba was born to Guinean parents. Paul’s brothers, Florentin and Mathias represent the Guinean national team on the international stage. Samuel Umtiti, who scored the winning header against Belgium in the semifinals, was born in Cameroon. Belgium themselves had immigrant representation as Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku, Adnan Januzaj and many more.

The immigrant takeover of football isn’t something that developed recently. The first time an immigrant attained global fame and superstar status was none other than the current manager of Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane. What many people, including myself, didn't know was that Zidane was born to parents of Algerian descent. When he starred in France’s World Cup triumph in 1998, his origins were revealed to the public. France celebrated victory as more of a political statement, showcasing their progression to the world and marketed out of Zidane. His career blew up as well, as Real Madrid purchased him for quite a hefty sum of £46.2 million, making him the most expensive footballer for eight long years until a certain CR7 was purchased by Madrid for £80 million.

Zidane, 1998 World Cup. Image Source.

Fast forward to the 2006 World Cup. Italy vs France in the final, everything to win everything to lose. Zidane once more took the tournament by storm, scoring three goals as well as winning the Player of the Tournament award. However, his successes in leading France to the finals aren’t what stands out in people’s minds when they’re asked to remember the 2006 World Cup final. Towards the end of extra time, the camera pans to Zidane and Marco Materazzi and one can see the referee running towards them. Materazzi is on the ground and Zidane is towering above him, with a pissed off look on his face. Referee Horacio Elizondo has a red card in his hand and raises it in front of him, tossing him out of the game just before the penalty shootouts. Turns out, Zidane head butted Materazzi after the Italian said something about Zidane’s sister, enraging him and head butting Marco in the chest. Italy went on to win the World Cup, besting the French in the penalty shootouts. This led to a complete 180 degree turn from the celebrations of the 1998 World Cup victory. The French were enraged for obvious reasons and once again the issue of him being an immigrant was brought back into the light. Although he now has a very successful career at Madrid, Zidane’s career may well be defined as the “immigrant” who cost France the World Cup.

The head butt heard around the world. Image source: ABC

Coming back to European football, it’s clubs and countries are dominated by immigrants or children of immigrants. Raheem Sterling was born in Jamaica, Marcus Rashford is of Kittitian descent (St. Kitts & Nevis). Jadon Sancho was born to parents from Trinidad & Tobago. These three are the future of the English national team, and are key players in determining England’s chances at the 2021 European Championships. As viewers and supporters of European clubs it is clear to us that this is the future of football. Globalisation has brought talent from other countries to the European leagues and these players have lit up the football scene with spectacular performances. However, this doesn’t come without racism.

Racism exists everywhere. As Indians, we have been raised with the notion that fair skin is superior. This was also seen with cricketer Daren Sammy expressing his displeasure at being called ‘kaalu’ (dark-skinned) by some players of his Indian Premier League (IPL) team, Sunrisers Hyderabad, in 2013-14. “India is full of racial and communal issues,” says former football captain Baichung Bhutia. “A lot of them are not even aware that a racial slur is being hurled at them. Most of these players come from humble backgrounds and have struggled their way to the top. The challenges that these guys have gone through since their childhood are more than just the abuse that is directed towards them or their folks. However, that does not mean this should happen. Strict action must be taken against players and spectators who do this.”

Every race has a certain prejudice attached to it that arises out of stereotypes, and this leads to the development of negative attitudes towards people belonging to a particular race. In 2020, racism has once again been brought to the forefront of issues that are holding back the world which claims to be progressing. The world of football isn’t devoid of racist slurs and statements, some of which often go unnoticed. Some incidents are caught by the cameras and some surface years later in interviews and newspaper columns. While racism from hostile fans isn’t an uncommon occurrence, not so often are racist incidents between two players are documented or captured by the cameras.

Romelu Lukaku says that when he performs well, he is Belgian. However, when he performs poorly, he’s of Congolese descent.

In October 2011, Former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was suspended for eight matches after hurling racially discriminatory abuses towards Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. Evra represented the French national team, but was born in Senegal. QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, the brother of Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand was racially abused by former Chelsea captain John Terry. Anton Ferdinand is of Lucian descent. The immigrant takeover of European football has brought racism back to the football scene. From youngsters like Tammy Abraham to stalwarts like Mo Salah are subjected to racist attacks every game due to the colour of their skin and their religion. The associations are ready to take every measure required to eradicate racism from the sport, but these fines are still incapable of keeping racist fans out of stands. Monkey chants are still made at coloured footballers and banana peels and beer bottles are still thrown at footballers. Romelu Lukaku says that when he performs well, he is Belgian. However, when he performs poorly, he’s of Congolese descent. Mesut Ozil spoke out after Germany’s disastrous World Cup performance in Russia, where he claims that when he performs well he’s a German but after his unexceptional performance in Russia, he was labelled a “Turkish immigrant” and was axed from the team, which led to his abrupt retirement from international football.

The immigrant takeover of football has its pros and cons, but racism is too largely systemic of an issue to be considered just a con. We cannot have an issue like racism hold football back from being a global phenomenon which unites people from different countries and communities. Multiculturalism isn’t a threat but an asset. Although the notion that immigrants steal jobs from natives is common, it’s more an asset than a threat. Representation is important and when you see a footballer from a remote African country of Gabon scoring goals for Arsenal or the sight of a tiny Frenchman of Malian descent dominating France and Chelsea’s midfield is a sight to behold and is testament to the fact that multiculturalism is an asset.


Nathan is a second-year student of Mass Media at St. Xavier’s College. He’s an aspiring sports journalist and a self-proclaimed shark expert. He considers himself a part-time blogger and a full-time fan of the sport football. His Instagram is @nathan.fulgado.