Entering the summer, even as an American fan watching from abroad I was dreading an extended period of time without Liverpool football to pour my energies into. Luckily, the World Cup was at hand, and though I found myself in the difficult situation of feeling relieved at the US National Team failing to qualify for the tournament due both to members of the team openly supporting racist immigration policy and the fact that the US has essentially hit fast-forward on the spiral into overt fascism, I welcomed the reprieve.
Football, you see, functions for me as it does for many people: a fun obsession that can distract from the every day mundanities or the unforeseen sorrows or the steaming collapse of an empire that stole from your people while still exacting a final price on you in its death gasp. Football is perfect for all of these distractions and more!
But it increasingly became difficult for me to even view this edition of the Copa Mundial as a a distraction for a myriad of reasons. Some of it was due to poor choice of phrasing for marketing purposes, like an “England’s good at conquering” spot that made the rounds during the opening week of the tournament. My colleague at TLO, Ritika Bhasker, wrote a fantastic piece reflecting on this for Unusual Efforts, which you can read here.
Another part of it, though, is that the political realities for immigrants in America - especially those from nations that would comprise the global south - are so dire, and so often at the World Cup there were reminders of those realities, reflections of them in so many of the players and so many of the countries.
I wrote approximately a month ago in this same space that America was in the midst of a fascist administration and it was precisely in that time - at the start of the World Cup group matches - that I was processing news of families being separated at the US-Mexico border, with children as young as infants being pulled from parents and placed in detention facilities. I was processing this while watching teams from South America being cheered on and discussed by white American punditry on the television and white Americans on Twitter. I was processing this while holding onto my then-eight month old daughter and trying figure out what it all meant, everything that was happening.
This past Sunday, France won its second World Cup trophy, marking the end of the tournament as well as the final time this summer in which Liverpool FC coverage, via Dejan Lovren and Croatia, would share any space with footballing concerns that aren’t directly related with the club itself. But as the French team celebrated its achievements and the nation celebrated its sporting heroes, I couldn’t help but think about how that win necessarily pushes up against the idea that politics and sport can be separated cleanly.
The bulk of the French National Team are either immigrants or the children of immigrants, with many members tracing roots to former French colonies like Nigeria, Cameroon, and Algeria. Which is worthwhile because these players are now necessarily wrestling with a reality in which their contributions as immigrant people of color to bringing France a new accolade stands in contrast to the ways in which the French people and government have consistently fought to make their presence in France insecure.
That paradox, being the hero in a nation that values your labor but refuses to engage with your whole humanity, isn’t new. But it is another stark reminder of how people of color and immigrants are viewed in America and Europe as commodities. How we are lauded for what we can contribute to national honors of the national rate of production, but when we deign to seek better treatment or to have equal access to services or to simply exist outside of cages and without the threat of deportation, we are met with contempt.
For many fans, football can serve as a distraction. But for people like me - and for athletes of color in majority white leagues or nations - there is no ability for us to completely dissociate from how our bodies are politicized. Immediately after France’s win, videos went viral of French President Emmanuel Macron celebrating with these immigrant Sons of France as champions. Yet in recent years the French public has attempted to ban burqas and pushed to refuse entry to refugees in the name of maintaining a national identity.
I think about this French Team now and reflect on what that might mean to fans of Liverpool Football Club with new football a mere few weeks away, that tension in having heroes we celebrate on the pitch who may be people we would not celebrate off it. What does that sort of thing mean, or what should it mean, for a fandom steeped in political imagery and language that recalls the ways in which the community of Liverpool were often forced to fend for themselves by a government that abandoned them.
And, for me, what does it mean for foreign fans of the club, those in America that have chosen Liverpool for one reason or another but that may not have done so recognizing the underlying socialist themes in Shankly’s team-first ethos, the renditions of “Working Class Hero” that sometimes ring the park, and of a people that always identified first as Scousers.
Liverpool is a port city and the cosmopolitan nature of the town was shaped by that openness to the world. The football that has been on display has always had an influence that looked somewhat different from the rest of England. And one that had a pulse on the continent and elsewhere.
Liverpool Football Club is a global club who’ve had the likes of Mo Salah, Fernando Torres, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Emre Can among their roster of players. Non-English, and in the case of Mane, Salah, and Emre, Muslim players of color. The club, like the town, has always seemed to have an air that looks beyond itself and is befitting of a club that claims a global fanbase.
So I think about the World Cup and about the tension and about those those players - Can, Mané, and Salah - praying ahead of matches, palms upturned. Or Salah, kneeling towards Mecca in tribute after one of his goals. And I think about an American fandom at least that likely has some overlap between supporters of a ban barring travelers from mostly Muslim-majority nations, and supporters of players like Mané and Salah. I wonder if those people watching from their homes in the States - or those in England who share similar views - recognize the ways in which their support runs counter to supporting these players as human beings.
I wonder how an American fan could support Salah and the club while embracing politics like the Muslim Ban, something that only serves to dehumanize these wonderful players. And I think on how the necessary implication exists that, at least for some fans, there will be a willingness to tolerate Muslim, foreigner, non-white players for only so long as they can contribute to putting Liverpool back on their perch and only while they are on the pitch.
I think about what that must mean about how those people who also call themselves Liverpool fans and mouth the words “you’ll never walk alone” feel about people like me.
Immigrants to America - or to anywhere - are generally only seeking to find peace, security, and opportunity. No person tends to willingly uproot their entire life, forsaking familiar faces, familiar tongues, familiar smells, and familiar tastes on a whim. Usually, the forces driving one to pick up stakes are stronger than the ones tying them down and that’s what wins. It isn’t nefarious mathematics but a rather common and practical one: I can better survive elsewhere, so elsewhere is where I go.
The families of the French National Team and footballers like Salah or Firmino have made the same determination, in their lives and in their careers. And advocating for policies that will see them receiving equal protections under the law - or allow them to live in places without the threat of government agents jack booting into their homes - is consistent with supporting them as footballers. It honors their sacrifice and contribution to the footballing history of the club to ensure that they do not have to live with the added anxieties of how their family members will be treated by their neighbors. It is a worldview that finally reconciles supporting the player with supporting the human in the shirt.
Football’s growth as we’ve entered the age of real-time video streaming of games held across the world is exponential. I increasingly spot more Liverpool fans in Southern California as a result and I often wonder how many even know of the club’s political roots. I wonder how many of these people are cheering for Salah with one breath while in the next advocating for policies that would ensure we could never have an American Salah. Or who hold a world few that could not even conceptualize someone like Salah ever being labeled American.
So I write this piece a week following the release of news that the American government has refused to give citizenship to undocumented veterans and has also moved to begin de-naturalizing citizens. I do not have a criminal record, but my work in an area of dissent makes me fearful for my own status as a naturalized citizen. It isn’t football, and yet the celebrating French stars and thoughts of Mohamed Salah invariably lead to this.
I always knew that with an administration like this, that this reality was always possible - maybe even likely - but that doesn’t help to undo the anxiety that my existence in America is suddenly a lot less stable than it was even a month ago. And even then, it already felt wobbly as I watched our government rip children from their parents while people, at least some of whom will inevitably count themselves amongst Liverpool’s global fanbase, try to justify this behavior.
Actual Liverpool football on the offing will, hopefully, be a bit of a distraction. But I also hope that people will begin engage in new ways when it comes to how their own political beliefs necessarily have real world consequences - consequences that would likely impact their favorite players. Yes, Salah is a mega rich superstar, but if you’re an American fan, then backing a racist regime that would ban Muslims would certainly affect him, on a human level if nothing else.
Maybe this isn’t football. Maybe we’d all love to stop talking about it, too, all of us who won’t stop talking about it. But it’s connected, no matter that some might wish to claim otherwise, and there is power in the talking to slow things down. There is power in the talking to bring a bit of relief. There is power in the talking to find others who see us fully. There is power in the talking to remind us that we don’t - or at least shouldn’t - walk alone.