Now that the drama of the Brexit vote is over and the catastrophe that is a post-EU Britain is underway, it’s time to re-focus on what’s best about Europe, the knock-out stages of Euro 2016. But what if, somehow, your favorite team was eliminated in the group stages? Or you were planning on supporting England, Wales, or Northern Ireland and have developed second thoughts? Or say you’ve been focused on the better soccer being played in the U.S. at the Copa America? Or, perhaps you’re new to the sport—difficult to imagine if you’re reading this—and you just don’t know whom to root for? If any of these scenarios describe you, here are some principles on choosing a team for the duration of the tournament (or through Monday, depending on your choice).Before we get to the guidelines, a word—actually a phrase—on why this is so difficult. That phrase is “European history.” Before the tournament began, my fantasy soccer league (full disclosure: many of the participants in the league are writing for this blog) engaged in a heated discussion around the question of whether it was possible to choose a team that was devoid of historical baggage. When it comes to Europe (and frankly almost any country, especially if you go back far enough in history to a time when there were no countries) it’s pretty challenging to find a nation that hasn’t engaged in something atrocious. Like Spain? How do you justify supporting the state that sponsored the Inquisition and the conquest of the Americas? You’re an Anglophile, then. The record of the British Empire, particularly in east Africa and India is far from spotless. Germany, perhaps? Oh, right. (And you don’t want to jump on the World Cup winning bandwagon anyway).
Unless you want to support Costa Rica you’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that the national team you’re cheering for represents a nation that has done something historically reprehensible. So here are some guidelines to help you navigate the perils of decision-making.
- Our first premise is that, as a Slate reader you’re probably support things like economic integration and subscribe to the uncontroversial idea that immigration is a good thing because diversity is a good thing and immigrants bring skills, knowledge, and drive that make the countries receiving them stronger. If you don’t buy into this premise, enjoy the Three Lions, but assuming you do, then you’re looking for a team that features players whose parents immigrated or perhaps are immigrants themselves. Almost every team will have one or two of these players, and if you go back further than one generation you’ll find more, but some teams, like some countries, are more willing to incorporate players of diverse parentage. Your best choices in this regard are probably France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. Austria was a solid contender on the diversity front, but not so much with the football.
- Diversity is good, but with some of these countries there’s a catch: colonialism. France may have the highest number of players with parents who were born in other countries, but a number of these countries were French colonies, and their presence is a reminder that France, though it may be hard to remember it now, was one of the world’s most extensive colonial powers. Interestingly enough, none of the current French team descends from Algeria, the country with perhaps the most complicated French-colonial history—thanks to Karim Benzema allegedly blackmailing a teammate and getting booted off the team. Many of France’s players descend from African parents, but not all of them were from former French colonies like Mali and Senegal. French back-up goalkeeper Steve Mandanda was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as were Eliaquim Mangala’s parents and Blaise Matuidi’s father came from Angola, a Portuguese colony. Any team featuring players who emigrated from Africa or had parents who did is going to have this colonial problem, unless those players are Ethiopian or Liberian. I’m not going to get into the question of whether some forms of imperialism was better than others, though. This is supposed to be about soccer.
- The third principle to consider is the country’s more recent history, both in respect to immigration, historical bad action, and levels of racism and xenophobia. This last criterion should knock out Italy—home of racist monkey chants and sad Mario Balotelli—which is so desperate to add some offense that they naturalized the Brazilian Eder. Despite his goal earlier in the tournament, the strategy of naturalizing Brazilians seems to be yielding diminishing returns possibly because Brazil’s national team is garbage right now and for the past decade Brazil has been dumping low-quality footballers on the world market in such a way that if they weren’t over-priced athletes the WTO would be slapping sanctions on them. Despite their having a better record on the recent European migrant crisis than most and a number of excellent players with Turkish parents, there are going to be those who can’t support Germany for the same reason my grandmother will never buy a German car. Also, they win a lot and it’s fun to root for the underdog.
- If you really want your footballing support to make a statement about your politics and let people know that you support the plight of European migrants, you might consider the Swiss. Their team features five players with Kosovar Albanian roots plus one with Bosnian parents and another whose parents were Kurds. They also have players born in Cameroon and the Ivory Coast and no unfortunate colonial past. Of course they do have that neutrality thing, and that white cross crest might be a deal-breaker. Plus you might not want to associate yourself with a country more known for shady banking, expensive watches and the World Economic Forum than for football.
- Assuming you have made peace with your new country’s colonial past, and you want to show your support for global integration, cosmopolitanism and well, for Europe, there’s really only one choice: Belgium. For many, the horrific history of the Congo will make the Red Devils a non-starter. And that nickname is problematic for any actual football fans who despise Manchester United (as they should.) But the Belgian team has players with a remarkable degree of diversity in their backgrounds including Radja Nainggolan whose mother is Belgian and father Indonesian, and Marouane Fellaini whose parents were Moroccan. They have a left-back who plays in MLS, which has to count for something. Belgium produces delicious beer and French fries and waffles. Most important, nothing says “I support the EU” like cheering lustily for the country where the EU parliament is.
So, if you want to both forget about the Brexit and stand up for European unity and diversity, pull on the black, red ,and gold of the boys from Belgium and hope that their coach Marc Wilmots develops a clue about what to do with all the talent he has at his disposal. With any luck, you’ll have more than one game to support your new team. And if they lose, against Hungary, then you can root for Iceland like all the other hipsters.