EVOLVING IDENTITIES: A FOOTBALLING PERSPECTIVE

EVOLVING IDENTITIES: A FOOTBALLING PERSPECTIVE

As a second-generation Tamil born in Switzerland, raised and living in England (and an avid football fan), to which national team I pledge my support has been under constant enquiry. Despite my attempts in explaining why I support whom, they're often met with confusion, discontent or general disagreement. Perhaps it reflects the complexity in accepting the battle of 'nature vs. nurture' in identity, as I choose to call it. It's no surprise that the passion for the game and one's pride in identity go hand-in-hand, yet this year with the World Cup in full flow, several events highlighted that the beautiful game can equally well expose (or itself be the cause of) the concept of an 'identity crisis'.

As the month of June kicked off it was time for us to take out the red and white flags, and all the merchandises gathered through years of being England fans, in preparation to support the Lions at the World Cup in Brazil. Although usually this would be the sole recipient of my undivided attention, this year I would also have a close eye on another football tournament - one of a much smaller scale, yet of equal (if not more) significance. The ConIFA World Football Cup was being held in Sweden in early June - an international tournament that enabled the participation of states, minorities, stateless people and regions not affiliated with FIFA. For this we'll have out the red and yellow flags and routing for Tamil Eelam - representing the sovereign Tamil identity. In recent years, people finding their voices in stadiums taken to the streets across the world has promoted the role played by football in representing unrecognised identities, influencing political and cultural movements. As such, Tamil Eelam would be the only sporting team to signify the resilience in the struggle for identity of Tamils both in Sri Lanka, as well those of the international Diaspora.  

Here were two teams representing the nations, the identities, embraced and enlaced within me. Although I've come to terms and accepted the complexity of my own identity, self realisation is not always a sufficient argument, be it for a football fan, or a footballer. 

Just ask Mario Balotelli, who'd been scrutinised by certain groups of fans regarding the validity of his Italian 'nationality' in the backlash following Italy's early exit from this year's World Cup. Born in Italy to Ghanaian immigrant parents, he was fostered by an Italian family as a toddler. Despite his Ghanaian ancestry, he'd declined an international call-up from Ghana and instead chose to wait to become eligible to represent Italy on acquisition of Italian citizenship. "I am Italian, I feel Italian, I will forever play with the Italy national team" he'd stated. 

Zlatan Ibrahimović is another player with an immigrant background having chosen to play for his country of birth, yet he enjoys a heroic status among the Swedish fans, having just surpassed 100 caps for the National side and breaking their goal-scoring record. Although Sweden didn't qualify for the World Cup this year, born to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, had Zlatan opted to play for either of his ancestral countries, he would have participated in Brazil. There is indeed a battle to claim the player as their own from all corners, with some Bosnians and Croatians taking pride in the fact this exceptional player has their 'blood', while the Swedes are quick to point out that he is Swedish born and bred. 

While his openness regarding his national and social backgrounds has proved that barriers of such statuses can be broken through sheer determination and the power of football, Zlatan while on one had a hero, has also been branded a 'traitor' among others. Bosnia and Herzegovina's national squad qualified for their first ever World Cup this year since independence, and the proceeding Bosnian war of the 90s. With only one player from the starting lineup of their first match born and raised in the country, the rest were either born elsewhere or had fled as a result of war. Asmir Begović is one such player, who despite having played for the Canadian National team, had then returned to be play for his country of origin. In comparison, those who played for other national squads despite their Bosnian heritage were thought to have 'forgotten their roots'.  

The host nation had its own so-called 'traitor' on home turf this year in the form of Diego Costa, who despite having played with Brazil for a few friendly internationals (the country in which he was born and resided till the age of 16), had switched allegiance to Spain on becoming a Spanish citizen. This was explicitly condemned by the then Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, and more vociferously so by the Brazilian fans as he took to the pitch during the summer. His swap wasn't fully welcomed in Spain either, with chants of "Diego Costa is not Spanish" being heard in some league games. Costa's case raised the issue whether representation of a country via football is merely a matter of 'naturalisation'. Unlike Balotelli and Zlatan, Costa had lived much of his childhood in Brazil, embarked on his football career in Portugal and only then moved to Spain. Should it simply be a question of where he belongs to from a legal sense or should it consider where he feels he belongs?

With legislation in place regarding the eligibility of players to represent (and switch) countries clearly set out by FIFA, if a player freely chooses to represent a nation without breaking any rules, should  judgments raised regarding personal choices be validated?  Should the likes of Balotelli, Zlatan and Costa endure such obloquy from certain factions, when it comes to questions regarding their identity? Perhaps it's underlying racism. Perhaps it's the inability to accept such complex identities resulting from the evolving demographics of the modern world - on the part of both players and spectators. Regardless of the situation of the presence, one's identity cannot be 'complete' without accepting their origins. At the same time, holding on merely to one's roots and not accepting the reality of multifaceted identities of the modern era can only hinder the development of society, and the game.

With continually emerging conflicts in recent years, 'global peace' appears to be slowly but surely in a state of decline, a pattern verified in numbers through the Global Peace Index. A study by the Institute of Economics and Peace published in August showed that of the 162 countries covered, only 11 appeared not to be involved in any form of conflict (neither internal nor external) at the year end of 2013. Among the 11 were Brazil and Qatar - both of which have since been scrutinised regarding internal affairs brought to light by their responsibilities as hosts of the 2014 and 2022 World Cups, respectively. Future statistics therefore also look rather bleak. Such continuing trends of global unrest augment the likelihood of further transformations in geopolitics and demographics, with subsequent implications on the football field. This year's World Cup was in plentiful supply of examples showcasing the complexities in identity of both fans and footballers alike, and will not be the last to do so either.

While future international tournaments will continue to accommodate FIFA-approved representations of complex identities, there will also be a rise in unrecognised states seeking acknowledgment on a global scale through the medium of the game. Those who competed in the ConIFA World Cup for example, can surely look up to the likes of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who have created history in Brazil - endeavouring for the stability of their nation and its identity following the passage of independence, war, emigration and finally stability and re-establishment. Although some level of apprehensiveness in accepting new and complex identities will remain, history proves that talent (and time) has the strength to overcome these obstacles. The integrity of the game lies in the accurate reflection of social identities in a timely manner - both on an individual and collective level, be it on or off the pitch.

As an England fan, I'm well aware of the importance of patience and perseverance for success on the pitch. As a Tamil, I'm conscious of the significance of representation and acceptance of an identity. As a football enthusiast, I know I can integrate both of these identities and ideologies into my love for the game - as after all, though clichéd; it is more than just a game.

Sankeetha is on Twitter @S4NK33.

Thanks to carrubbam for the picture.

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