Sport, Migration, Citizenship, ‘Race’ and National Identity: Towards a new research agenda

Postponed new date: 23-24 June, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Within the conference, processes related to national representation and national belonging as well as meanings given to race and ethnicity will take centre stage. We will also discuss potential future avenues of research in these areas.

Sport and nation

For those studying national belonging, elite athletes competing in international mega events offer particularly compelling case studies as they represent the nation during periods of sustained media attention and heightened emotional registers. They wear the colours and flag of the nation, they sign the national hymn and they literally become the ideal image of creating the ‘imagined community’.
In the famous words of the historian Hobsbawn: “What has made sport so uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings […] is the ease with which even the least political or public individuals can identify with the nation as symbolized by young persons excelling […]. The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people. The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of his nation himself.
—Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780

In the international sports arena, the legal guidelines and the moral justifications for citizenship and national belonging are stretched. By taking high profile examples from international sports events, the Sport and Nations network seeks to unveil the complexities behind the question: who may represent the nation? While the presence of foreign-born athletes in national football teams and the Olympics has a long history, it is often believed that the World Cup and the IOC have become more migratory over time. The presumed increases in the volume and diversity of foreign-born athletes and footballers have, however, remained empirically untested. In this research, we empirically tested whether the presence of athletes at the World Cup and IOC has increased over time. Furthermore we highlighted considerations and consequences of four key players in this process: the individual player, who wishes to perform at the highest possible level; the sending states, who have invested in their talents; the receiving states, who expect to gain better results (FIFA, the international sports organizations and IOC) who raise (and have raised) issues of ‘fair play’. This research, therefore, seeks to understand and explain how and why states are gradually willing to sell one of their most valuable assets: citizenship. We have particularly highlighted how historic precedents shape current debates of fast-track citizenship changes. We focussed on the private interests at stake and assessed the national and international implications of such weighty transformations.

The aim of this meeting is threefold:

  1. To present the major research-results of the Sport and Nation network of the last five years.
  2. To present some of the major results from football and race scholars and the Football and race network 
  3. To look for opportunities to move on in this research Arena. Therefore, we invited respected and outstanding scholars to discuss the state of the art of sport and social sciences/humanities studies and look at the future.

Football and race

During the EURO 2020 some national teams have been kneeling to protest against racism in football and to show support to the BLM movement, reminding us of the urgency to address issues of racism in sport. Given the racial, ethnic and national diversity of football players in men’s and, to a lesser extent, women’s football, together with its large audiences, it is important to provide more insights into how football contributes to meaning making processes related to race and ethnicity. Existing research has shown, for instance, that football commentators sometimes use racial/ethnic stereotypes when describing or talking about football players. In so doing, they reproduce larger societal discourses about race/ethnicity that sustain racial inequality. The ‘football and race network’ at Erasmus University is exploring the (re)production of discourses surrounding race and ethnicity within football, with a specific focus on the role of media and leadership and coaching, within a  European perspective in particular. They do so from a critical perspective. Findings need to be placed in a wider academic and societal debate on race, popular culture and multi-ethnic society.

In the near future, two interrelated developments that may change the face of national representation in international sport are expected:

(1) Countries that are at the centre of prestige, like Spain, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany in Football will increasingly be flexible towards jus nexi players. From the same angle these countries will most probably be senders of talent to ‘second best’ countries.  As the best and brightest young players are now selected in the top five European competitions these countries will profit from the increase of foreign talent that will be incorporated (or ‘nationalized’) in the national team.  The host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar, is capitalizing on the same principle. It has established the controversial ‘Aspire Academy’, among other initiatives, to attract young African football players. These players will—after having earned a contract for five years—be eligible to play for Qatar, just like Diego Costa was eligible to play for Spain, although the battle with FIFA on this issue continues.

(2) Coaches will increasingly seek talent using players’ jus sanguinis and jus soli connections, through its diaspora. A good example is the Moroccan football federation’s strategy, who looked for their national talent in countries in the football-centre where many Moroccan migrants live. In doing so, they increase their talent pool, who in turn profit from the better training and educational institutions at the centre. This will mean that Morocco becomes a stronger team, especially related to other teams in Africa that will not attract football players from its diaspora. However, this increased strength will be ineffective against the strength of the European national teams. Most diaspora players and descendants of colonial migrants—if pushed to make a choice between their country of birth and the country of their parents—will inevitably choose the country with the highest ranking, unless they expect not to be selected for that team.

Organisation: Gijsbert Oonk, Jacco van Sterkenburg, Jasmin Seijbel, Carmen Longas Luque, Arne van Lienden.

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