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Russia's World Cup Team Bucks Multiethnicity Seen On Swiss, Other Teams

The Russian soccer team is not known for its ethnic diversity. (file photo)

While there is a splash of ethnic diversity on virtually every team playing in soccer's 2018 Russia World Cup, many cite the Swiss national team for setting the standard for being multicultural.

Known affectionally by its fans in Switzerland as "the Nati," 14 of the 23 members of the Swiss team were either born outside of Switzerland or are "secondos" -- a word used by the Swiss to denote the offspring of immigrants.

Switzerland is not the only team that came to the World Cup in Russia with a sizable portion of players from the country's migrant or ethnic minority communities.

More than three-quarters of France's team (18 players) are from the country's varied communities of immigrants, while the Belgians have 11 such players, England 10, and Germany six.

Foreigners Not Wanted

But despite having millions of immigrants -- mostly from Central Asian countries Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan but large numbers also from Ukraine and Moldova -- the team representing World Cup host Russia is overwhelmingly made up of ethnic Russians and a few titular nationalities, such as Ossetians, from the country's vast array of ethnic groups.

And besides naturalized Brazilian Mario Fernandes and a few players whose parents came from Ukraine and Belarus when they belonged to the Soviet Union, the Russian team is bereft of non-Russian players.

"Russia, of course, isn't exactly a haven for immigrants from outside the former Soviet Union, and has major issues integrating those [migrants from former Soviet republics] into the mainstream of society," Slava Malamud, U.S.-based columnist for Moscow's Sovetsky Sport, told RFE/RL. "So it's not a surprise the [Russian] national team is much less diverse than most European countries."

Peter Odemwingie (left) insisted on playing for Nigeria even though Russia was where he was born.
Peter Odemwingie (left) insisted on playing for Nigeria even though Russia was where he was born.

Malamud noted that Peter Odemwingie -- the son of Nigerian immigrants who was born and raised in Russia -- refused to play for Russia several years ago, opting instead to play for Nigeria.

Many of the millions of migrants living in Russia have social and economic hurdles that often prevent them from participating in sports, he said. Many work in lower-wage construction jobs and aren't considered full members of society.

"They live in the margins, not truly accepted and mostly tolerated at best," Malamud said. "Their socioeconomic situation isn't conducive to having their children participate in organized sports, and most of them would not be able to get Russian citizenship."

And he suggested that racism also plays a role in the absence of minorities on Russia's team.

"Many Russians tend to view diversity of European squads such as France, Germany, England, and Switzerland as a sign of the corresponding nations' weakness and the erosion of traditional cultures," Malamud said.

He said there's a common perception in Russia: "Europe is dying under the hordes of invading barbarians."

"It's basically a part of the country's official ideology," he said.

Segments of top Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg's fanbase have a reputation for being racist. (illustrative photo)
Segments of top Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg's fanbase have a reputation for being racist. (illustrative photo)

For example, Zenit Saint Petersburg, one of the country's top clubs until recently, had an unofficial policy to "not sign black players because their fan base was staunchly against it," he said.

"For a while, there was a big banner at the Zenit stadium stating, 'Black is not one of our colors,'" he said.

In 2012, the club's largest fan club demanded an all-white, heterosexual team, saying "dark-skinned players are all but forced down Zenit's throat now, which only brings out a negative reaction."

The European soccer federation, UEFA, earlier this month announced fines against Zenit for fans chanting racist chants during a Europa League match against the German club Leipzig, reportedly singing a song with the words "Kill The [Blacks]" during the March match.

But Russia isn’t the only team at the World Cup with a substantial immigrant/refugee community that lacks diversity on its national team: Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Iran are among some of the other national squads with very little minority representation.

Likewise, the national teams from former Yugoslav republics -- Serbia and Croatia in this World Cup -- are virtually entirely made up of Serbs and Croats, respectively.

Swiss Detractors

Meanwhile, two of the Swiss squad's best players are also from the former Yugoslavia: Xherdan Shaqiri, who was born in Kosovo, and Granit Xhaka -- whose parents are ethnic Albanian -- each scored a goal to defeat Serbia 2-1 on June 22.

Both also celebrated their strikes by making a "double-eagle" hand gesture, a tribute to the two-headed eagle on the Albanian flag.

Even though nearly 25 percent of the people living in Switzerland are foreign-born, not all Swiss are enamored with their multicultural team, which some hard-liners deem to not be "Swiss enough."

A composite photos showing the "double-eagle" goal celebrations of Granit Xhaka (left) and Xherdan Shaqiri after they scored against Serbia at the World Cup.
A composite photos showing the "double-eagle" goal celebrations of Granit Xhaka (left) and Xherdan Shaqiri after they scored against Serbia at the World Cup.

Roger Koeppel, a member of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), called the Nati "a seasoned troupe of foreign mercenaries with Balkan accents."

And he labeled the six Swiss national players of African descent "ensuisses," a derogatory term that questions their ties to Switzerland.

The SVP has the most seats in the country's parliament.

Another member of Koeppel's party was upset by Shaqiri and Xhaka's double-eagle hand gesture.

"Those two goals were scored for Kosovo, not Switzerland," tweeted Natalie Rickli, an SVP member of Switzerland's National Council.

But Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis, who recently had to give up his Italian citizenship, defended the players, saying it was normal to have "patriotic emotions towards the nation that one has chosen without forgetting your homeland of origin."

Societal Debate

In a strange reversal, 17 of Morocco's 23 players at the World Cup and 11 of Tunisia's were born in Europe -- mainly in France and the Netherlands. They spurned their home countries to play for the birthland of their parents or grandparents.

"Many of the players now choose to play for Morocco instead of the Netherlands," said Frank van Eekeren, an assistant professor and researcher on sports and society at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

"There is a change [going on] there -- I'm not sure if it's a change in the whole society or just in this particular group that feels a different kind of connection to our country," he said. "It could be a sign of players that don't feel at home in the country [in which] they were born."

Dutch people, he said, are asking "what kind of society are we really? Are we doing something wrong? People don't feel at home; what has changed in these couple of years?"

Malamud argued that ethnic diversity has primarily benefited wealthier nations: France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

"And while marveling at Switzerland, I cannot help but think what an unbelievable team Albania would have if its best players weren't playing elsewhere," he said.

One can also ponder if Brazil and Argentina would have ever had the huge success in football without their uniquely diverse societies, Malamud said. Something the United States -- which failed to qualify for this year's tournament -- may benefit from some day.

"The main reason to believe in the future of [American soccer] is the country's ethnic and cultural makeup," said Malamud, himself a naturalized U.S. citizen.