In 2016, the European football championships have been marred by xenophobic clashes and violence between hooligans and the (so called) supporters of several national teams. Even before the tournament began, participating teams, players, and coaches have been beleaguered with discrimination and race based arguments.
In France, the current Real Madrid and former ‘Les Bleus’ player Karim Benzema claimed that Didier Deschamp, France’s head coach omitted to the pressures of a French racist party and excluded him from the national squad on the grounds of Benzema’s Algerian descent. Eric Cantona, another former France international put forward similar accusations against Deschamp, and argued that Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa from Nice were not considered for the tournament because of their North African ethnicity. Two days later, Didier Deschamps’ home was vandalized, painted with the word ‘racist’.
In Germany, the Vice President of the German AfD party, Alexander Gauland, explained in an interview that the German squad is no longer German ‘in the classic sense of the term’. He referred to the fact that a number of players in the German squad have roots in Tunisia, Spain, Albania, Turkey, Poland, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. In another interview, Gauland claimed that Germans would not want ‘a Boateng as a neighbour’ - while Boateng was born and raised in Berlin, his father was born in Ghana. Other AfD party members, including the party’s president Frauke Petry, have criticized the German squad player Mesut Özil for unpatriotic behavior when he posted photos from his visit to Mecca on Facebook.
What should be a contest of sportsmanship has almost been overshadowed by populism and xenophobia. However, if Benzema and Cantona took a closer look at the current Les Bleus lineup, they would see that almost half of its players have roots in Africa, the Caribbean, or the Indian Ocean. Benzema could have argued that his exclusion this year is unfair because, although he’s embroiled in a formal investigation into his alleged involvement in blackmail, he should be innocent until proven guilty. This argumentation would have been factual and somewhat more constructive.
Xenophobic arguments have always been a popular political tool, used to blur the facts, popularize, and polarize individual positions and agendas. Donald Trump has used this tactic time and time again. In the context of an international sporting event like the European football championship, this populist’s tool is just as damaging and confusing. It diminishes much of the joy, happiness and togetherness for which supporters come to the stadiums and cheer their teams.