The intersections of sports and geopolitics generally fall into three categories: sports as soft power vehicle, sports as nationalist symbol and sports as metaphor for the global system. The ongoing FIFA World Cup in Russia, unsurprisingly, offers plenty of each; the quadrennial soccer tournament is second only to the Olympic Games in terms of geopolitical implications and imagery. Little more than a week into the tournament, we can check some boxes. Soft power may be the hardest to quantify while events are still unfolding, but we can keep the analysis simple. Just look at the range of political leaders and global power brokers who will be in Russia this month and will inevitably break bread with one another, debating a controversial goal from the evening's matchup before inevitably moving on to more pressing matters. Or, if that's too fanciful, note that one of the most viral images from the opening week of the tournament was not of an athlete, but of the VIP box handshake between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
If the soft power dimension is subtle, the symbolic dimensions are not, and in the internet era, they make for easy content, often bordering on tropes. Country X is playing for redemption and national pride after an absence of Y years – 36 years, in Peru's case. Or country Z's diverse squad represents the changing face of its populace and the future to come, as is true of France and Belgium. African teams get a particularly reductive treatment: From Tunisia to Senegal, each national soccer team is "the hope" of a continent. (And when the African teams come up short, some erudite pundit will be there to connect their countries' colonial legacies to the current corruption and instability in African soccer governance. The analysis won't be wrong, but that doesn't make it any more scintillating.) Of the many geopolitical narratives running through the World Cup, the use of foreign-born players seems to be getting more attention than usual this time around, especially in the American press, which has been scrambling for content in the absence of the U.S. team from the tournament.
Much has been made of the fact that almost 10 percent of the players in the tournament are competing under the flag of a nation they weren't born in. Only seven of the 32 teams competing are fielding squads whose players are all native sons. On Morocco's team, meanwhile, only six of the 23 players were born in the country. Unlike in other sports, where many countries have taken to naturalizing total foreigners for competitive glory, in the world of World Cup soccer, most foreign-born athletes are the children or grandchildren of immigrants from the country they represent. Their birthplaces reflect post-colonial relationships and globalized labor flows. France offers a case in point: You could assemble an entire 23-man soccer squad (plus four extra reserves!) of French-born players who are competing in the World Cup for countries that are not France. Germany, however, has spread its wealth of talent around the most, providing at least one German-born player to each of five potential opponents.
These patterns reflect not only the geopolitical metanarratives I've outlined, but also the realities of world soccer and global business. Player development is the forte of robust, bureaucratic soccer governing bodies like those in France and Germany. That a player of Tunisian heritage who was born and raised in Marseille would receive better training opportunities in the French system than he would have had he grown up in Tunisia is no surprise; neither is the fact that the same player might not make the cut for the superior French national squad. As a bit of a soccer obsessive, I find this sort of thing fascinating, and I have enjoyed seeing coverage of the trend, which certainly seems to be the new normal in world soccer. That said, I have also been amused to see this type of player movement portrayed as a relatively recent phenomenon, when the strategy traces back as far as 1934.
I've written in previous installments of this column that Adolf Hitler and his 1936 Berlin Olympic Games are generally considered the tipping point for the politicization of world sport. Though I tend to support this consensus, I would argue the 1934 World Cup in Italy must be part of this conversation as well. Eager to show the world the power and prowess of fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini scored a major victory when he secured the right to host the 1934 tournament. Simply hosting wouldn't be enough, of course, so Il Duce threw his weight behind two efforts. An ambitious construction program to build world-class stadia would demonstrate the nation's industrial and economic might. But more important, putting together a championship team, one that could work together to dominate the opposition in an almost militaristic fashion ... well, what better symbol of fascist ideology could there be?
That a player of Tunisian heritage who was born and raised in Marseille would receive better training opportunities in the French system than he would have had he grown up in Tunisia is no surprise; neither is the fact that the same player might not make the cut for the superior French national squad.
Italian Enough to Play
To understand just how seriously Mussolini took soccer as a political tool, we need to go back even further, to 1926, when he installed fascist leader Leandro Arpinati as the head of Italian soccer. (Arpinati would later serve as undersecretary of the Interior Ministry and as head of the Italian National Olympic Committee as well.) The new soccer chief oversaw a plan to consolidate the previously scattershot Italian soccer system with the clear goal of developing talent. A set of rules known as the Charter of Viareggio established the modern Italian league system, made professionalism legal and barred all foreigners from playing in the country. But as John Foot writes in his excellent history of Italian soccer, Winning At All Costs:
"Like many Italian laws and rules, the charter's procedures contained a big loophole. Who was Italian, and who was a foreigner? Banned from buying Hungarians and Austrians, the top Italian clubs began to look for 'Italians' amongst the millions of their fellow citizens who had left the country to find fortune elsewhere in the world. The hybrid category of the Italian oriundo (a person of Italian extraction) became part of the footballing parlance."
By the time of the 1934 tournament, the notion of the top oriundi playing for the national team was a foregone conclusion. On the surface, this arrangement would seem to contradict Mussolini's desires to showcase the forza of the Italian populace, but it didn't take much imagination to put a proper nationalistic spin on the inclusion of one Brazilian- and four Argentine-born oriundi. These men were not cheap imports; they were the living proof of the Italian people as an imperial, global force. Observers likened the foreign-born players to soldiers donning military uniforms – an apt connection, given Italy's conscription rules at the time. Histories of the squad always include a famous quote from the legendary manager Vittorio Pozzo, who suggested that men who could die for the country should be able to play for it as well.
A Winning Strategy for Italy
With the oriundi ensconced in important roles on the squad, the Italian team eventually lifted the championship trophy. Whether they earned it fair and square is a historical debate for another day. Plenty of evidence seems to suggest that Mussolini did his best to influence the referees and that several decisions in the Italian matches were questionable. To their credit, though, many of the squad's players also claimed victory in the 1936 Olympics and in the following World Cup in France in 1938.
The veracity of the 1934 title notwithstanding, Mussolini's negotiation of Italian identity and citizenship in the service of sport and nationalism is telling. The global system may look quite different today than it did between the world wars, but the normalization of player movement in pursuit of sporting success suggests that this beautiful, maddening game is still about more than the final score.