Last week, a German politician from the rightwing Alternative for Germany (AfD) caused a furore with his tweet after the national team’s exit from the European Championship. "Maybe next time the German NATIONAL TEAM should play again," the party's deputy leader, Beatrix von Storch, tweeted.
She was clearly trying to profit from the defeat of a multi-cultural, multi-racial team that two summers back won the World Cup. AfD is not new to such abhorrent statements. Before the Euro started, another of its leader, Alexander Gauland, told Der Spiegel: ‘German or English football team hasn’t been German or English in the classical sense for a long time’.
Germany are not the only side with players from different backgrounds and religions. In fact, 45 of the 552 players featured in the tournament trace their roots to Africa. Hosts France have 11 players who have African background while fellow finalists Portugal have six.
At a time when rightwing and extreme-right parties are gaining ascendency and voice, across Europe – AfD in Germany, National Front in France, Freedom Party in Austria, Swiss People’s Party in Switzerland, and more – the success of African-origin players in Europe’s biggest football tournament is a welcome counterbalance, one that would resonate with people.
The success of the likes of Paul Pogba, whose roots can be traced to Guinea, and Dimitri Payet, born in Reunion, a speck in the Indian Ocean controlled by France, could also inspire the newer generation of immigrants in Europe. The rhetoric of closing the borders isn’t limited to US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, as the world has seen with the Brexit campaign, though much of the focus is on refugees from Syria and Iraq, who need more compassion and support.
Though there isn’t any player from the Middle East in Euro 2016, the assimilation of those with Moroccan roots in Belgium (Marouanne Fellaini) and France (Adil Rami) and the Tunisian-origin Sami Khedira in Germany could help. Mesut Ozil, whose grandparents moved to Germany from Turkey, and who early this year shared a picture from his Mecca pilgrimage, could also help.
Lest we forget, many from Africa still risk the perilous journey to Europe. According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), around 48,400 Eritrean asylum-seekers were registered in 2014 with Nigeria (22,100), Somalia (19,900) and Mali (13,413) being the other African countries from where a huge number of people have sought a move. And thousands of youngsters among them can dream of becoming future sports stars in their adopted countries.
Here, the story of Wales’ Hal Robson-Kanu, who scored the outrageous Cryuff-turn goal against Belgium, Italy’s Angelo Ogbonna (both of Nigerian origin) and France’s Ngolo Kante, of Malian origin, can inspire them. The other big name is Germany defender Jerome Boateng, of Ghanaian origin. His brother, Kevin-Prince Boateng played for the country of his origin.
Then there is the case of Ruben Okotie of Austria, who like teammate David Alaba, is of Nigerian origin. Okotie was born in Karachi. He plays in the Chinese Super League.
In all, nine players in the Euro 2016 have roots in Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony. Nigeria and the archipelago of Cape Verde account for five each.
The find of the Championship, Portugal’s Renato Sanches, who has just joined Bayern Munich, hails from Cape Verde in the Atlantic.
Thus, no matter who lifts the trophy in Paris on Sunday night, the real story will belong to Africa.