What the World Cup shows us about racism
The world’s most popular sport reminds us of our collective greatness but also of colonial oppression
I can’t wait for the World Cup.
As a child of Jamaican parents, born and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, I started playing soccer when I was 4, trying to emulate my older brother, who excelled at the sport.
The first World Cup I remember was France 1998, partly because Jamaica made its first (and still only) appearance. Even though I was born in America, I never felt a connection to the U.S. men’s national team. Not only were they overrated, they had few black players, even when Eddie Pope and Cobi Jones were in their prime.
Our national team looking the way it did hardly surprised me. Soccer, after all, was a “white” sport, or so I was told by the American mainstream and my friends.
When I played, I’d often be the only black kid on the team — but I hardly felt alone. I always knew I was part of a larger community that played and loved “the beautiful game.” At the very least, I knew black Jamaicans loved the game. We all felt deep pride watching Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore score two goals in Jamaica’s victory against Japan.
Over the years, I’d come to realize that black athletes around the world, if not in America, played soccer as their primary sport, from Colombia to Brazil to Cameroon to the Netherlands. That realization was a breakthrough moment for me, not just because it proved my friends wrong but also because it revealed that soccer is not merely the world’s game, but the black world’s game.
As a soccer fan, I consume the English Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga. Every week I enjoy watching the skill, grace and technique of the top black soccer players in the world.
How big is the World Cup? Of course, it’s the world’s biggest and most anticipated sporting event, but it is also the lens through which to see black people as part of a national body politic. It is a frame that pictures black people as part of the nation.
As I got older, I also realized that this game revealed a more sinister story about the racial dynamics of the world. My earlier feeling of disconnect from the U.S. national team shifted to an anti-colonial politics that rejected the U.S. because of its history of genocide and enslavement of black and indigenous communities, which, for me, was reflected in its predominantly white starting lineup.
When I watched teams such as France, Colombia or the Netherlands play with a large contingent of black players, I remember my excitement at finally seeing players that looked like me playing the world’s game.
But it was something more than just black players; it was the presence of blackness in these countries that astonished me. As a kid, I never associated Colombia with blackness. Same for the Netherlands or England. Europe doesn’t have black people, I foolishly believed. But rather than question why I was so amazed by this presence, I blindly celebrated these countries as havens of multiracialism. I was terribly mistaken.
To be clear, seeing black soccer players in other countries surprised me because the popular image of these countries, and their citizens, had little to do with blackness. The imaginary view of European and South American countries as non-black is a creation of modern nation-states. History is written by the victors. To be more precise, history is written by the colonizers.
If countries weren’t excluding black players, they were overstating an egalitarian society that masked the persistence of black subjugation. This is precisely the danger of framing soccer as a medium to promote multiracial unity, as it obscures the anti-black ideologies and policies of different nations.
Alongside celebrating the World Cup as a stage to represent blackness internationally, we must watch the World Cup as a space to interrogate the global conditions that continue to obscure blackness under the guise of representation.
France, the eventual winner of the 1998 World Cup, was celebrated for its multiethnic and multiracial composition, while Russia, the host of this year’s World Cup, was recently fined by FIFA because its fans racially abused Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembélé in a “friendly” match.
What connects France and Russia is that, even outside the football stadium, beyond the boundary of the field, black people are structurally relegated to second-class citizenship.
My point is not to celebrate black representation within the nation-state. On the contrary, it is to expand our understanding of blackness beyond national boundaries so we can recognize not only the global structures of racism but also the techniques that black athletes use to resist the racist elements of football and society at large.
After Jamaica’s “Reggae Boyz” failed to advance to the round of 16 in the ’98 World Cup, I immediately shifted my support to the Dutch national team, which featured the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Winston Bogarde and Michael Reiziger. While they went on to lose to Brazil in the semifinals, the style, aesthetic and blackness of these players encouraged me to embrace the sport and identify with black people all over the world.
This is what makes the game beautiful.