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One of us – how football can teach us to embrace immigration

May 18, 2018

Mohamed Salah

I was talking to a friend the other day about why I no longer support any particular football club, despite still being interested in the seasonal battles for supremacy between Russian oligarchs, Emirati princelings and American baseball tycoons.

I blamed my indifference to the fortunes of the club I identified with in my youth – Aston Villa – on the fact that any team in or around the top flight consists mainly of foreign players. Why, therefore, should I swell with pride at the feats of my erstwhile local club (I haven’t lived in Brum for forty years) when barely a single player born and bred in the area, let alone the city, appears regularly in the first team?

It was not always thus. Back in the day – and I’m talking about before I was born – the majority of Arsenal players were Londoners. Those who turned out for Burnley were born and bred within spitting distance of the dark satanic mills, and Leeds United players were dragged out of the local coal mines. There would surely have been a sense among those who crammed the terraces that these were “our boys” who were fighting for the honour of the town.

When I was growing up, the transfer system and club scouts ensured that those who turned out for the top clubs came from all parts of the United Kingdom, and a good few from the Irish Republic. But this didn’t stop fans from adopting them as honorary Mancunians or Brummies. What mattered more than regional origins was loyalty and devotion to the cause.

Nowadays, for the owners, football clubs are part of a diversified investment strategy. A match ticket to a Premiership game costs a day’s wages for an Amazon warehouse picker or a barista on the minimum wage. The players come from far and wide – from Belgium and Burundi to Brazil and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Look at the Premiership team sheets on match day and you would be lucky to find more than a couple of players from the British Isles, let alone the neighbourhood.

There was a time when football players would take the same bus or tube to their home ground as the supporters. Today they show up in Bentleys. You would therefore expect the average football fan to regard these pampered mercenaries as anything but “our own”.

So why, I would ask my friend, would anyone get fired up with pride in the achievements of Chelsea, Manchester City or Liverpool when those who play for them are the footballing equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters – athletes with extraordinary skills who are only interested in the next payday.

In the latter respect I’m wrong of course. These guys have a fierce competitive instinct that drives them to seek clubs where they can achieve success. Money is not everything, even if their agents are busy trying to persuade their clients to change club every couple of years, so that they, for whom money is everything, can enjoy another bumper slice of the transfer fee.

But still, why the loyalty among fans for these businesses that bear the names of famous football clubs?

After all, the professional game has come a long way from its roots. Most of them started out as exactly that: clubs, or societies of like-minded individuals formed in the nineteenth century as an outlet for men who needed distraction from the tedium of their day-jobs in the mines, the factories and the foundries.

The root of their loyalty was tribal. It remains so, even if to belong to the tribe you no longer have to live in the club’s home town or anywhere near. The big clubs have long had overseas supporters. Thirty years ago, bus-loads of Liverpool, Arsenal and Glasgow Rangers fans would make the ferry crossing from Ireland every week. They still do, though Ryanair tends to be the preferred carrier these days.

Continents away, people in Kenya, Shanghai and Mauritius also proudly wear the club shirts despite never having visited Britain, let alone Anfield or Old Trafford. The lure of the tribe goes way beyond borders.

So by what right should I look down on people who spend a fortune over their lifetimes supporting a corporation? In truth, I don’t look down on them, any more than I look askance at those who invest massive sums in the products made by Apple, Mercedes and Timberland. Loyalty to a brand that delivers entertainment is just as understandable as sticking to products that serve a useful purpose.

And there’s another dimension. I live in Brexit Britain, supposedly full of people who blame immigration for all their woes. People who, according to a recent report by a UN Special Rapporteur, are endemically racist. People who fear and hate, in equal measures, Muslims.

Yet in the football fraternity these are the same people who over thirty years have gone from venomous racist chanting on the terraces to cheering black footballers regardless of their origin. In Liverpool, not exactly the wealthiest city in the British Isles, Mohamed Salah, a Muslim from Egypt, is adored not just for his goal scoring but for his character – humble, humane, always smiling.

Top footballers may be a wealthy elite, but down to the lowest level of the professional game, fans show up every week to cheer on players from all parts of the world. They are indeed “one of us”.

But among those fans, the chances are that there are many who feel that our culture is under threat because we are being swamped by foreigners.

This is despite the fact that much of the food they eat is prepared to foreign recipes, most of the TV they watch comes from Hollywood, not Shepperton, the cars they drive were designed in Germany or Japan, the clothes they wear were manufactured in Bangladesh or China, the phones they use are designed in America and made in Taiwan.

Without our even thinking about it, our culture has become an amalgam of foreign influences. In fact it always has been. We embrace foreignness. Chicken tikka masala has become our favourite restaurant dish. Ford Fiestas and Renault Clios are seen as being as British as fish and chips. Yet we blame foreigners for diluting our culture.

More specifically, people grumble that that the schools are overcrowded and that there are not enough houses for us Brits. We blame foreigners, and successive governments that have allowed them to live here in increasing numbers.

The millions of football fans have come to regard those who take to pitches around the country in the colours of Brentford, Huddersfield and Blackburn as footballers, plain and simple, rather than foreign footballers. So isn’t it time that we started looking differently at people who fix our cars, care for us in our hospitals, build our homes and serve our cappucinos?

Perhaps we should start seeing them not as foreigners but as taxpayers, which the vast majority are. Taxpayers are people who through their income pay for education, health care, policing and other public services. Why are the pounds contributed by Polish builders any different or less valuable than those paid by those who are soon to obtain blue passports?

And if we look at them as taxpayers, should we not ask why our government is failing to provide the required level of services to all taxpayers – in other words, failing to build enough schools, houses and hospitals for those who need them, regardless of the colour of their passports?

The easy rebuttal to this argument is that since the gates were opened to citizens of new European Union member states, foreigners have arrived in numbers that successive governments didn’t anticipate, which was why they were unable to plan for sufficient new facilities to meet the demand for services and infrastructure.

I don’t buy that. It doesn’t take fifteen years to build new hospitals, new schools or implement new affordable housing projects. The fact is that we’ve chosen not to. The cost-cutting measures known as austerity are partly to blame. The collapse of North Sea oil and gas revenue is another.

Anyway, I’m done with blaming people for a process that has been going on ever since the first hominids started out from Africa and populated the globe. International is a natural state. Boundaries are a fragile constraint and can no more constrain the mingling of people and cultures than they can prevent the spread of pollen on the spring air.

We might not like that idea, and indeed many of the people who supported Brexit find it hard to admit that immigration has been good for Britain, and forget that we, as much as Trump’s America, are a nation of immigrants, even if our immigrant waves are much older than America’s.

Much as I would like to see more players in football’s top flight eligible to play for England in competitions like the upcoming World Cup, there’s no denying that English football would be the poorer without the skills of Mohamed Salah, Kevin de Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez.

And likewise, post-Brexit Britain will be the poorer for the loss of foreigners who keep the National Health Service going, contribute to our scientific research projects and, at the other end of the scale, pick our fruit and vegetables.

Even if we accept that for practical reasons there must be limits to the numbers of new arrivals who need to be housed, schooled, protected and kept healthy, it’s time we viewed our foreign residents as contributors, not burdens, as taxpayers, not scroungers.

And if our football fans can rejoice in the wondrous foreign talent that will be on view over the next couple of weeks as our football season comes to a climax, surely the rest of us should bring ourselves to regard the doctors, nurses, plumbers, builders and carers who have come from other countries as “one of us” as well.

  1. In my view, many have fallen into the trap of assuming that Brexit will mean that immigration virtually ceases?

    Not so. We will continue to welcome in people that we need – doctors, nurses, bankers or whatever. However, we will be able to turn away criminals and state benefit-hunters – who, as part of the EU, we have to take in while, as a result of needing to try and control numbers, we have to turn away, for example, needed doctors from outside the EU.

    We asked the EU for the ability to control EU immigration. They said “no” which I believe was probably a significant contributory factor to the vote to leave.

    • Thanks for your comment Andy. You’re probably right on most counts, but I would argue that the presence of foreign criminals and benefit seekers, who make up a small minority of those people legitimately in the United Kingdom, doesn’t justify the denial of visas to foreign doctors and nurses, which is happening right now, before we’ve even left the EU. Also I suspect that many of those here to make a living from crime are not citizens of the EU. Our jails are currently hosting significant numbers of Albanian, Jamaican, Indian, Pakistani, Somali and Nigerian prisoners. Leaving the EU will not solve the significant problem of crime among non-EU entrants, to whom we have the power to deny entry right now. Without some form of freedom of movement, Brexit will simply add EU nationals determined to work in the UK but who do not meet such criteria as we impose for visas to the population of illegal residents, which currently numbers around half a million.

      The whole thing is the proverbial bugger’s muddle, and I don’t think our current government or the opposition have the mental wherewithal to solve the problem without letting a lot of babies out with the bath water. S

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