JUNE 20 — Global sensation Kylian Mbappe scored before France kicked a ball in its Euro 2024 campaign.

How?

By being one of the 200 French athletes asking France’s citizens to reject right-wing parties in the upcoming national election on June 30.

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It was a fine goal to be proud about.

The French captain, of Algerian-Cameroon descent, was forthright and direct. NO to xenophobes.

In actual football news, the World Cup winner broke his nose during their opening match against Austria in Düsseldorf, Germany. De Gaulle be blessed, the Fifth Republic’s sporting monarch is set to return to play with a mask — not iron — for the knockout phase.

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Welcome to this European summer of moral discontent played out in various parliaments and polling booths across the continent and not less spectacularly, on the playing fields of Germany.

Identity is at the heart of the battle either through votes or by proxy, sports.

Populism is on the march in Europe and migrant-bashing a vote-magnet.

Basic questions shed better light on populism’s domination over there.

If fewer people looked like Mr Mbappe on Parisian streets, will France’s authenticity be better preserved? So too for Germany, Britain, Netherlands, Italy and other Western nations? As former colonial powers shut out new migrant arrivals and experienced trepidation over too many minorities in their sporting teams, choosing the nation’s face is an unabating debate.

Fear of too many Mbappes outside a football field has clouded the minds of the masses. Their fear of loss.

France's Kylian Mbappe during a training session in Paderborn, Germany June 19, 2024. ― Reuters pic
France's Kylian Mbappe during a training session in Paderborn, Germany June 19, 2024. ― Reuters pic

German broadcaster ARD, shortly before the tournament got off the ground, asked if more whites in Die Mannschaft (national football team) for their home Euro would be desirable. Over a fifth of respondents said yes.

Less Jamal Musiala, Leroy Sane and Antonio Rüdiger, and more Toni Kroos, Manuel Neuer and Florian Wirtz. Somehow to them, a German win means more if the team looks more — in their minds — German.

How the Euros spotlight race

Football is visceral and personal. It gets people on to the streets for the best and worst.

Mix it with race — the shifting demographics of Europe since after WWII — the road permutates between the promise of unparalleled unity or a spiral to chaotic despair.

With the bold insertion of Portugal’s Eusebio in the 1960s and France’s Jean Tigana of the 1980s, the limited presence of minorities in European national teams was modest social progress, the overall ethnic disposition remained — teams were white enough to not upset the right.

Around the 90s it got nervy. It was not the Spice Girls doing.

The Netherlands 1996 Euro team was laden with stars of Ajax Amsterdam — 1995 Champions League winners — but also not wholly pink. A record number of minority players like Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and Winstone Bogarde caused the media to ask if it was a black team rather than orange (the national team’s nickname).

It’s the same in next-door Germany.

In 2002, due to old citizenship laws, German-born Turks — eight of them — made up the Turkish national team to face Germany in a World Cup semi-finals. The 2014 World Cup winning German team filled with minorities suggested better days for the multicultural country.

However, the group stage implosion at the 2018 World Cup left Turkish blooded Mesut Özil — celebrated only four years prior — to say he was German when they won, and Turkish when they lost. The ARD poll echoes the country’s polarised headspace substantiated by the rise of the Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) vote share.

Mbappe’s teammate Marcus Thuram adds generational context to the French debate. His father, Lilian was part of the 1998 World Cup team which right wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen condemned as un-French for having too many migrants in it. Winning the trophy shut Le Pen up. Twenty-six years later, Marcus stands up to Le Pen’s daughter Marine who leads opinion polls to be the next French president. It does remind us, the passion both ways is not new or likely to end anytime soon.

Britain has its own demon in how Bukayo Sako and Marcus Rashford were singled out for abuse after England’s penalty shootout defeat in the last Euros final in 2021.

In essence, for all the western European nations, with rising minority populations while governments busily fend off unprecedented flows of fresh migrants, football is a mixed bag.

They enjoy the wealth of talent supplied by migration on the pitch but rue the complexion and miss their country when stranger looking people are everywhere.

I am getting lost at home

The European Union election results 10 days ago, displayed the rise of the right wing all over the continent. From Le Pen’s National Rally to Giorgio Meloni’s Brothers of Italy running Italy, the ire of the population towards migration powers vote patterns.

France and Britain vote during the competition through the first week of July. Both countries will likely have different leaders by the day of the final on July 15. Wonder if Mbappe shakes the hand of a National Rally PM walking to the podium to pick the prize, if they — both the superstar and race-first leader — get there?

Can Malaysia see itself in the situation developing far away in Europe?

Again, questions to shape the discussion.

What is the face of Malaysia, and what is the face of sporting Malaysia?

Should the better question be if Malaysia has a face?

Compared in football terms, the last Malaysian XI that played Taiwan on June 11... six of the 11 who started were foreign born.

Malaysia’s fixation since independence is whether our sports teams reflect our demographics.

These are all difficult to tackle, but two things are true.

Malaysia has always been led by populists and our sportsmen keep their mouths shut.

Populism is a function of votes it attracts and organically emerges, and Europe has to deal with its own challenges. Malaysian athletes may want to speak their minds more because they have an additional responsibility to utilise their influence.

While it’s a phonebook level of name dropping of football players from over 50 years, far more Malaysians are likely to know them than the politicians serving them today, two miles from their residences.

So, I get excited when Mbappe talks about race, society and his own identity.

While detractors may regret sports being filled with politics, right wing politicians or populists never regret filling politics with fear of migrants.

When all these sportsmen keep their fans with performances and not hate, they have the attention of the masses, even as far as Rawang and Sungai Bakap. Attention unused is a disservice, read up about the boxer Cassius Clay.

They, like Clay, should speak up against hate. The only pity here is that our sports personalities do not join the fray. Be like Clay.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.