JULY 11 — It’s still July 9th in this Munich evening, a stadium resplendent in blue and red. France and Spain are about to deliver a multicultural football extravaganza.

While French heads are lowered at the end of a 1-2 defeat, football fans around the world cheer on both teams, for the match belatedly brought Euro 2024 back into immaculate life. After three weeks of careful and staid football all across German host cities, the semi-finals everyone hoped for matched its hype.

And it is already the 10th in Malaysia at kick-off. Mahathir Mohamad turned 99.

The former Malaysian leader is no sports fan, but sports did not miss the chance to punch racism in the face. It being the birthday of the man who succeeded to break up the unity of our people decades ago, not unlike how Europe’s far-right tries to emulate today, brings some confidence for liberals about karmic justice.

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The stadium is in Bavaria, the former heartland of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Better known as Nazis, proponents of racial superiority through military capture before duly squashed by allies from around the world. Here, both teams paraded a diversity unimaginable 50 years ago in world football.

N’Golo Kanté, Kolo Muani, Jules Koundé or Nico Williams. Malian, Congolese, Beninese, Ghanaian and more. All hues of black to white.

If it was possible to underscore these changing times even better, Williams’ immigrant parents crossed barefoot much of the Saharan desert, enroute from Ghana to Spain, and therefore young Nico’s achievements pale in comparison. Yes, even beating France in the semifinals. Literally, words fail in comparison, let alone their son.

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But social progress is never to be taken for granted. This summer football and politics collided, turning French footballers into political campaigners as two rounds of parliamentary elections in the home country ensued. Black players asked their countrymen to vote right so that their France still sees them as equals in a fraternity filled with liberties.

France voted that the republic mattered more than anger. Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez hailed the result across their border, and Deutschland faces a series of state elections to see if French resolve can embolden Germans to see their better selves in rejecting the far-right of the AfD (Alternative for Germany).

Europe is at a crossroad, as Malaysia has been for some time. Whether to give in to primal tribal associations or to look for ideas and inclusivity.

One is easier but leads to destruction. And a shame no soap can wash, eventually. The other, near impossible and never easy, with a low chance of success. But it is the right path. It is the trail which leads us to ourselves even if not to victory.

That’s where it is delicately balanced.

One boy

Now we talk about Lamine Yamal.

He lines up on Sunday in Berlin for Spain to face either Netherlands or England in the Euros 2024 final. He faces an even fiercer opponent, the past. Olympiastadion is the same arena Jesse Owens arrived to defeat the Nazis at home long before enemy tanks rolled into the city nine years later. Owens, a black, wins four golds and spurns the idea of racial purity in the faces of its key promoters.

What a game — France vs Spain — to serve the world, and on Chedet’s birthday. If there was a goal to change Mahathir’s mind, Lamine Yamal scored it on his birth anniversary.
What a game — France vs Spain — to serve the world, and on Chedet’s birthday. If there was a goal to change Mahathir’s mind, Lamine Yamal scored it on his birth anniversary.

Whether Lamine asked for this moment to address all of Europe as it threatens to backslide is academic. The people who are tempted by the far-right are also people absorbed by sports. Hate and sports come agonisingly close and stay at dinner tables. Which is why hate in sports is uglier and more hurtful, and the love in it defies words in convincing everyday folk.

Lamine, if you have not heard yet, turns 17 this Saturday. Sixteen-year-old him broke Pele’s record to be the youngest scorer in a major international tournament. He also broke plenty of French people’s hearts. It was the first goal conceded by the 2018 world champions in the tournament’s six games. It broke the dam, Dani Olmo followed the equaliser to nail the winner five minutes later.

The boy of Moroccan-Equatorial Guinea descent is Spanish, and nothing is wrong with that. Every goal and assist he makes henceforth assuages more hearts to that simple truth. It is unfortunate many require proof of such magnitude to normalise what is obvious, but there are no rules in winning over the hearts of people. And as politicians will point out, truths do not win elections. Being in line with what people believe does.

Birthdays three days apart

What a game — France vs Spain — to serve the world, and on Chedet’s birthday. If there was a goal to change Mahathir’s mind, Lamine scored it on his birth anniversary.

The two-time Malaysian PM, despite his own mixed heritage, despised mixing of the races. He joined three different parties to prove his allegiance to a race theory before political advancements.

Perhaps old dogs cannot learn new tricks, but the children in Kedah are likelier to try to replicate Lamine’s gameplay than Mahathir’s speeches — which as our species evolves sound trite, petty and out of time.

Try to swerve left, right, left and strike the ball sweetly to under the right crossbar in those open fields rather than stand and point at other people as the reason for any community’s unhappiness.

Hate takes you only that far, even if you turn 99 and still oblivious to it. On a diverse football field filled with talent and purity, one can learn the power of love even before turning 17.