The case for sport in cultural integration: Can Irish sport learn from current major events, asks Ken McCue
2018-07-15 14:47:56 -

In the same month that the greatest soccer show on earth was happening in Russia, our multicultural athletics teams were striking out for medals in the European and world games.


In the meantime, the mandarins at the FAI are wondering how teams of players coming from countries with smaller populations than the Irish Republic can reach the heights of the beautiful game, while the ‘boys in green’ continue to struggle with a squad of hardworking journeymen, many of them playing at the Championship league level in England.


Croatia, with a population of just over four million, played a blinder to reach the final of the Fifa World Cup. With 15 per cent of their squad born outside the Balkan country, all playing at top leagues in Europe, and skippered by a refugee called Luka Modric, they must be a model to be examined by soccer authorities here.


While they are at it, they could take time to study the soccer academy systems in Iceland and Uruguay. The latter system has produced over 100 ‘homegrown’ players currently playing globally at elite levels.


Meanwhile, England brought a team to the Russian tournament of whom nearly half were sons of immigrant backgrounds, while winners France, with 78 per cent of their squad from migrant backgrounds, sit on top of the ethnic diversity list.


The fact that millions followed the French and English teams on TV must send France’s Front National and the motley crews of right-wingers in Britain into a spin. In a country like France, where nearly 80 per cent of the population reject migrants, the soccer scenario mirrors the situation in July 1998 when the ‘Black, Blanc, Beur’ became world champions and the giant image of Zinedine Zidane appeared on the Arc de Triomphe. Zizou – French born, from the Berber ethnic group of Algeria – replaced images of the former French army boot-boy of Algiers, Jean-Marie Le Pen, on the streets of Paris.

The heir to the Zizou pedestal on the current French team is Kylian Mbappe, who has an Algerian mother and a father from Cameroon. It will be interesting if the presence of the 19-year-old striker and his fellow ‘BBB’ can do similar damage to the rise of Le Pen’s daughter Marine.


Organic Development

With most sports fans preoccupied by the action in Russia, meanwhile, significant groundbreaking events in the development of intercultural athletics were happening in Hungary at the European Under 18s, and in Finland at the World Under 20 championships. Unlike other national governing bodies of sport, Athletics Ireland has selected a high percentage of athletes from our diverse ethnic population, along with an overseas competitor of Irish parentage.


Following a comprehensive research carried out by Sport Against Racism Ireland (Sari) in 2012 that revealed very poor participation of athletes from diverse ethnic backgrounds in track and field clubs, a radical recruitment drive was deemed essential. The baseline study informed the programme of the Sari’s Africa Week Athletics 2012 with the theme ‘One Race-Human Race’.

While Athletics Ireland failed to act on the deficit, organic development in numbers took place in small clubs in Dundalk, Dublin and Offaly.

The athletes nurtured by these clubs, some of them without adequate funding or even tracks to practice on, have produced European and world platform athletes including Patience Jumbo Gula, Rhasidat Adeleke, Sophie O’Sullivan, Miranda Tcheutchoua, Israel Olatude, Gina Akpe-Moses and Reality Osuoha.


Other national governing bodies of sport, please take note. If the Government is serious about eradicating xenophobia and tackling racism, they must realise that funding sporting bodies that fail to use their sport as a medium for cultural integration is promoting further alienation of our diverse ethnic communities.

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