Multiculturalism has become an inordinately loaded concept in recent years – like ‘health and safety’ and ‘political correctness’, it’s a marvel how a presumably once positive set of values has now been branded with negative connotations. As Stewart Lee once said, ‘you can’t even write racial abuse in excrement on someone’s car without the politically correct brigade jumping down your throat’. When in doubt, ‘blame the effing Muslims’.
But it’s not only the ignorant who have queued to bash the principle. Once Jacques Chirac got away with complaints about ‘du bruit, des odeurs’ of North African neighbourhoods in Paris; once Angela Merkel pronounced that German multicultural society had ‘failed’; once David Cameron launched his petty minded tirade against the whole notion, the idea of multiculturalism as something to be avoided was indelibly present.
The irony of Merkel’s outburst in particular was that it came a few short months after a Nationalmannschaft of varied backgrounds had impressed so wonderfully at the 2010 World Cup. Mario Balotelli may have put paid to the German dream last month but the benefits to the nation’s football of more enlightened thinking have been apparent. Nor will it end soon – Togo born Peniel Mlapa, Diego Contento (of Italian descent), Boris Vukčević (from Croatia) Daniel Didavi (Benin), Fanol Perdedaj (A Kosovan of Albanian heritage) and Richard Sukuta-Pasu (Of Congolese parentage) are all in and around the Under-21 set up.
Elsewhere, an Internazionale side founded as a breakaway club that would welcome both Italian and Swiss players and, in latter times, famously bereft of Italians has achieved great success while the principle of the oriundo returned last decade after half a century away. In France, the greatest success of les bleus was synonymous with the triumph of multicultural values, no matter what the grubby minded likes of Chirac might say.
Here in England, the immigration that has allowed England to hang on to the coat tails of the world’s best and to somehow preserve a place in the loftier reaches of the FIFA rankings is in danger of being lost as the Coalition ups the invective. Cameron has called for a ‘muscular liberalism’ strangely at odds with Thatcherite notions of laissez-faire to counteract the creeping erosion of ‘British values’ while implying that newcomers are making no effort to learn English – a pint for anyone who can find me an example.
The soul searching that followed England’s recent exit in the quarter finals of the European Championships was familiar enough with a better than expected performance overall somewhat overshadowed by the gulf in technique. It’s thus essential that players schooled in a looser, less inhibited football culture are allowed their head – forging a more fluid environment less soaked with the rhetoric of physical size and power. That won’t happen if the customs gates are forever slammed shut.
Of course a large proportion of the rhetoric is an attempt to gain votes – it is accepted wisdom that the majority of the population see immigration as undesirable so politicians dare not express the opposite view – despite the fact that, aside from the sporting advantages, the economy can be boosted significantly by influx.
No league club will have failed to benefit from the integration of players from different cultures and as a fan, I want to be able to visit Abu Zaad on the way to Loftus Road, I want to be able to stop off at my local Polski Sklep on the way to the Kassam and I want to enjoy a butter pie in Preston and a pint of Woodforde’s Wherry en route to Norwich.
It’s a truism but football really can be at the forefront of the debate and show that social citizenship and belonging are not antithetical to multiculturalism. You and I identify with a team as a social glue arguably much stronger than nation, political party or trade union. That for the most part the group of XI we follow is made up of outsiders both established and brand new is something to be proud of.
But as Neal Ascherson has said in quoting Tom Nairn, we need to see the acceptance of irrevocable mixture as a starting point rather than as a problem. Britain is a rainbow nation now and football a rainbow sport. Letting go of that advantage with a closed door policy that shows the door to those who can enrich our social, cultural and sporting fabric is no path to follow.