Nationality of football players at World Cups is often a matter of discussion

Voetbal in een voetbalstadion.
Pim Ras/ ANP

The nationality of players at the World Cup is a regular topic of discussion, according to research by PhD student Gijs van Campenhout of the Erasmus School of History, Culture & Communication. His historical research shows that it is not a new phenomenon that countries are represented by players with a different nationality. However, the visibility and proportion of players with a migration background is increasing.

After the traumatic attacks on Charlie Hebdo in 2015, many wished France the final victory at the European Championship 2016. It was not to be, as despite an injured Ronaldo, host France lost the final to Portugal (0-1). The greater the rejoicing was when France did manage to win the World Cup in 2018. Nevertheless, discussions quickly arose about the composition of the team. Africa won the World Cup', joked Trevor Noah in the Daily Show. A joke that struck a nerve and was seen as racist. Yet his comment also met with approval, as some French people felt unrepresented by the team of which many players have African roots. Others saw the diverse team as the embodiment of a successful multicultural society. 

Not new

According to PhD student Gijs van Campenhout, it is not a new development that players who were born abroad, or who have a migration background, are part of a national team. Van Campenhout studied the diversity of players within the participating teams at all World Cups; from 1930 to 2018. "I went through all the selections with the question: who are they, where were they born and what is the origin of their parents and grandparents? Then it turned out that this phenomenon is of all times. Countries want to perform as well as possible and select players based on their unique talent. However, in recent decades you do see a further increase in the number of players born abroad. Globalisation processes play a role in this,” says van Campenhout.

Reflecting the migration history of a country

FIFA requires that a footballer has the nationality of the country he plays for. This can be because he was born in the country, one or both parents have the nationality, or because he acquired the nationality at a later age. A player may only play for one country in official international matches during his career. "At the 2018 World Cup, about ten percent of the players were born in a different country than the one they represented. You see that countries with a colonial past, such as the Netherlands, England and France, are more often represented by foreign-born footballers and players with a migrant background. Other historical migration flows, such as guest workers, are also reflected in the figures. In fact, the diversity within a national team is a reflection of the country's migration history."

Özil and Erdogan

A player with dual nationality can decide for himself which country he wants to play for and that choice is regularly subject to discussion. Think of Hakim Ziyech, who fell out of sight for the Dutch selection in 2015 due to injury, after which he decided to play for Morocco. Incidentally, he recently quit as a Moroccan international after clashes with the coach and probably this means the end of his international career. In Germany, Mesut Özil was discredited after he was photographed with Turkish President Erdogan prior to the 2018 World Cup. Van Campenhout: "The tournament was dramatic for Germany that was eliminated in the group stage. Özil was scapegoated in the media and after all the commotion he decided to quit."

Immigrant when you lose

Özil addressed an emotional letter to the German Football Association, saying he felt discriminated against. He wrote: 'I am a German when we win, but an immigrant when we lose'. According to the PhD candidate, this puts his finger right on the sore spot, and the dual nationality of players in crisis situations is becoming a more frequent topic of discussion. "Exclusion mechanisms and nationalistic feelings are dormant in football and come to the surface especially in adversity. It then seems as if part of the public no longer wants to identify with those players. This was also the case in England when, during the final of the European Championship in 2020, three players with a migrant background and a dark skin missed a penalty in the penalty shootout. They were subjected to racist abuse.”

Sport is a magnifying glass for social processes in society

The PhD candidate notes that players with a different cultural background, for example if they have a different ethnicity or adhere to a particular religion, are more often the subject of discussion, including third or even fourth generation immigrants. These kinds of patterns are valuable for him to investigate: "For me, sport is a kind of magnifying glass for social processes in society. The teams at a World Cup offer a snapshot of a country's demographic diversity, and at the same time of the attitude of the media and the public to the team's diversity. Developments in migration, citizenship and national affiliation are more visible here than in many other areas of society. This is precisely what makes international sport so suitable for exploring nationalism and national identity."

Portrait of Gijs van Campenhout

World Cup 2022 in Qatar

The World Cup in Qatar will kick off at the end of 2022 and is controversial in advance. The selections of the participating countries are not yet known, but Van Campenhout does not rule out some controversy surrounding Qatar's team: "The country has hardly any football history and Qatar is a country of immigrants. There are a lot of players with African roots, they were born in Qatar or they fled to the country with their parents. They all have Qatari passports, yet there is an image in the Western media that the country has filled the team with young talented African footballers. But how can we criticise that when several European national teams are strengthening their squad with players from all over the world?"


On 25 March 2022, Gijs van Campenhout defends his dissertation 'A Team of National Representatives? A history of the football World Cup, c. 1930-2018'.

PhD student
Gijs van Campenhout

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