Euro 2016: defining the boundaries of Europe
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By Sameer Tayebaly
The UEFA Euro 2016 begins today amidst security fears that have plagued the continent over the past year. Only last week, a Frenchman, accused of plotting attacks during the soccer tournament, was arrested in Ukraine with a van full of arms. Whether this accusation is true or not, security agencies around Europe have been on high alert in preparation for the global spectacle. The threat, it seems, is not merely from the usual suspects (Islamic extremists), but also from far-right groups that too feel Europe has to redefine itself. Immigration has become the trending topic of discussion in cafés and bars around the continent, with the left and right voices drowning themselves out while those involved continue to suffer, both locals and foreigners.
But who is a foreigner in Europe? As we all know, Europe ruled over almost the entire world for hundreds of years. A core aspect of this was creating an idea of “center and periphery”, where the people from Conakry or Trinidad were led to believe that they would have a better life in Paris or London. At least one with more opportunities. Does this shared history give people in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean the right to migrate to Europe? Europe is arguably a land that belongs as much to them as it does to natives.
Sport is a great leveler, and since each country wants to achieve the best results, decisions on who will be included in the team generally follow who has the most skill and quality. The outcome of this migration from periphery to center in soccer is self-evident. African soccer players have made inroads in most European soccer teams and are the stars of their country. The lynch pin of France’s great side that saw them win the World Cup in 1998 and then the Euro in 2000 was Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian descent. The team was built around him, Thierry Henry, and Patrick Viera, both black soccer players. France’s current superstar, one of the leading names at this year’s Euro, is Paul Pogba, of Guinean descent. Breaking into the national team, a vestige of nationalism that will perhaps outlive all its other forms, has not been difficult for players from other racial backgrounds.
In the same rigid hierarchy where neighborhoods are segregated and racism exists in institutions throughout the continent, black and Muslim players find a place in the team on the basis of merit. This symbolizes how Europe must redefine itself. The politics of exclusion have stretched too far and have only caused whirlwinds of extremism on both sides of the spectrum. Inclusion, bringing about diverse nations is the direction Europe needs. If the pool of talent can be stretched wider, why not have the best individuals occupy those positions, regardless of their background.
The concept of “third space” comes to mind here. Scholars from the postcolonial world have flocked to mega-cities in Europe and North America, justifying their decisions by speaking of a “third space” that is created in cities like Paris and London. They claim that in these metropolis’ you can find people of all ethnic backgrounds speaking a diverse range of languages. Their histories might hinder or help them in finding opportunities but at least they come together in this shared space, something only the West can produce as a result of being the “center”. European soccer comes in this space, as domestic and regional soccer becomes an international spectacle. Euro 2016 is a tournament that will be watched by people around the world for the class of Ronaldo and the talent of Emre Mor.
Emre Mor, the 18 year old Turkish winger, will be looking to impress on a European stage. His country has been playing as part of the European soccer bracket for decades, but the European Union is still unclear about their inclusion into the continent. It begs the question, what is Europe today? Can the idea of Europe include a country that’s majority population is its historical “other”? Muslims have felt excluded in Europe, Turkey has been excluded from Europe, but again soccer plays leveler. Turkey has consistently done well as a European soccer team, and even made the semi-finals in 2008. A broader, more universal definition of Europe is seen in the soccer world, where quality should be displayed. Yet Muslims continuously find themselves fitting only outside the boundaries of “Europe”, even if they live within them.
In light of the November 13th attacks and it's aftermath, following through with the tournament is a huge achievement and a symbol that Europe is not scared of extremists on both sides. Within the teams, those excluded, those who are outsiders, find themselves as core figures that represent a sporting nationalism on display. The paradox at this year’s tournament could not be more evident.