By Guest Contributor Hira Nabi
As the 2010 FIFA World Cup nears its’ end, we begin to look at the undercurrents of the tournament, held for the first time at the African continent, in South Africa, and the continued crossing-over of sports pop culture – spanning over languages, borders, time zones in search of markets and audiences. Take Coca-Cola’s World Cup “anthem,” K’naan’s “Wave Your Flag.”(Not to be confused with FIFA’s jingle, Shakira’s “Waka Waka.”)
There were six different versions of the song released and aired during the event, each featuring K’naan and the same cheering crowds, bright colours, contagious excitement, obligatory celebration of nationalism and of course, all of them celebrate “the” flag. But the flag in each was different: K’naan collaborates with Nancy Ajram to produce the Arabic version, with David Bisbal to produce the Spanish version, with Jacky Cheung and Jane Zhang for the Chinese version, with Féfé for the French version, and, last but not least, teamed up with Skank on a Portuguese version for Brazil.
It gets better! There’s an Alvin & the Chipmunks version, even.
This “official” World Cup version, which seems to have been taken up by everyone, is a compromised, co-opted, Coca-cola-ized version of the original. The original lyrics speak more to struggle against poverty and violence, in pursuit of freedom. Were they too real for the World Cup?
I’m fundamentally against flags and the problematics they posit. I’m against the usage of flags to whip entire populations into a jingoistic hyper-exclusive frenzy. It is dangerous to attribute so much emotion to fluttering pieces of cloth or paper, especially when imbued with ripe emotion and ego. Flags have in recent times become markers of gauging national pride; public sentiment declares that whoever doesn’t hoist the national flag on Independence Day, or some other day of national celebration or during moments declared as national crisis, is not supporting the nation. Those who do are celebrated for their loud visible, albeit unimaginative commitment to the nation. The flag needs to be recovered from this simplistic binary of exhibition and absence.
However, before attempting to reclaim the flag, certain fundamental questions must be asked and answers or further questions must be sought and examined. Who does the national flag of a nation really represent? Who does it serve and protect? Who does it actively and passively reject? How many people can actually claim ownership of a flag that claims to represent them? In conflicted times, the flag represents a determined conviction in ‘We, the People.’ The tireless question remains though – who are these people?
Watching FIFA 2010 matches for the past several weeks has most certainly been ironic: different lineups for different teams, wearing national colors, roused by flags – a celebration of multiculturalism is what the sponsors would have us believe. The matches have shown USA being represented on the field mostly by men of colour, of African-American and/or Latino heritage, Britain and France being represented by men of African descent, Germany’s side being carried by Turkish starters and one man of African descent. Is this the end result of “nationalism” in a transnational world, where some of the best players of western countries are migrants and/or minorities?
One will note that in some of the national Western teams such as England, France, Switzerland, USA, etc. the player lineups are ethnically, racially and religiously diverse, indeed representative of immigration patterns to the Western Hemisphere. While the player lineups are heralded as the success of multiculturalism, one must consider the repressive immigration laws and fear of immigration groups’ inability to assimilate as a real threat to paralyzing any kind of significant integration. Which communities based upon their nationalities, ethnicities, races, and religions are being included under the fold of the flag and which are being excluded?
It is incongruous that these nation-states continue to introduce more draconian legislature with regards to immigration and citizenship, and are becoming bastions of intolerance and xenophobia. This is heightened by class, race, ethnic disparity, and plagued by white supremacy and tokenized diversity.
The recent immigration law passed in Arizona, SB 1070, seeks to criminalize immigrants, enforcing drastic new measures of deportation, and increasing racial profiling. It also codifies distinctions of legality and illegality of people based on presupposed notions of who might be a harbinger of terrorism and violence. Immigration laws in France with regards to immigrants from North and West Africa, and more recently, Muslims, have become more reductive and stringent. Migrant workers in France have little to no rights at all, are often targeted by the police and are victims of xenophobia in French society that interprets immigrants as job-stealers. In 2005, there were three weeks of rioting, after the electrocution of two teenagers of African descent who were hiding from the police in an electrical sub-station.# A report published in 2009 by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, showed Turks to be the least integrated group of immigrants in German society and least successful in securing employment. The most integrated group in Germany, according to the Berlin institute, is immigrants from other EU countries. The Italian side’s lack of diversity in terms of reflecting immigrant and minority communities is perhaps emblematic of the state’s abysmal record with immigration laws. Italy has recently been embroiled in race riots fuelled by mafia-controlled labor practices, which have oppressed migrant workers for decades.
The World Cup not been immune to racial and ethnic hostility. In the 2006 finals, France’s Zinedine Zidane, provoked by Marco Materazzi of Italy, headbutted him 10 minutes before the end of the match, causing his ejection from the match. In his remarks to the press afterwards, Zidane apologized for the consequences of his actions, but not for the headbutt itself. Zidane claimed Materazzi used racial slurs and insulted Zidane’s mother and sister. Race and ethnicity have clearly been played out on the field and have become part of the aggression that opposing team players show to one another.
Perhaps we have not fully embraced multiculturalism yet; hence some of us are still deconstructing the flag and problematizing the dynamics of real life being played on the football field. Perhaps we need to check ourselves, reminding ourselves of how ridiculous our notions of nations and citizenship are – when we think of only White men playing for Western nations, when clearly those nation-states have increasingly diverse populations. However, our understanding is based in the identification of a national character, its heroes, its wealth, its dreams, and its enemies. If state policy continues in its heavy-handed oppressive legislature towards minority immigrant communities, then we have no choice but to continue to think of them as being removed from under the flag. Specific immigrant communities have continued to be cast as the ‘Other’ and never been re-cast as anything else. This has obvious race, religious, ethnic implications. The dichotomy continues to exist, and integration continues to be “their” problem.
Increasingly however, we have come to expect a kind of reversal. In that men of colour will be playing in the national teams of Western nations, illustrating and validating immigration histories. There is of course a danger to that kind of tokenism, which values diversity on the field or court (as the case may be) but discards it when it comes to legislature and benefits.
For now, instead of a national World Cup, we find ourselves beholding a transnational World Cup. It is always an interesting unraveling when international football players who build reputations with European clubs are recalled (once every four years) to play for their national team. National pride exists in those moments of glory and unity and sharing a goal or a dream, however it is not as simplistic as corporate interests would have us believe. While FIFA is still peddling national pride in the World Cup as playing for one’s nation, transnational linkages and immigrant baggage have complicated these emotional claims of belonging. Maybe instead of re-claiming or waving a flag, we need to get rid of it altogether.