The thing about football, the important thing about football,” wrote the inimitable Terry Pratchett, “is that it is not just about football”. On Thursday, the final scorecard in one of the many matches of the day at the World Cup in Qatar simply read: Switzerland — 1 (Breel Embolo, 48′), Cameroon — 0. But perhaps the more important thing about that number was not who won or lost, but the reaction of the man who gave Switzerland the victory. Embolo, born in Cameroon but representing Switzerland, did not celebrate the match-winning goal. His hands raised, he seemed to be apologising to his compatriots on the other team for what was bound to be, at the very least, a bitter-sweet moment.
Embolo’s seeming regret or the fact that brothers Inaki and Nico Williams play for different nations — Ghana and Spain — shows how the beautiful game is both a symbol for and symptom of the movement of people, and even the inequalities and injustices imposed by history and market forces on nations and peoples. For some decades now, national teams at the World Cup — particularly those from the global North — are more ethnically, linguistically and racially diverse. Given how often sport is suffused with national pride, the fact that players like Embolo, the Williams and Boateng brothers (who played for different teams in two Fifa World Cups) have hyphenated identities is something to be welcomed. But there is, as always, more to the story.
Embolo’s regret in what should have been a moment of glory resonates so widely because, in one sense, accidents of birth determine the movements of people and talent. In football — as in so many other pursuits — historical injustice has led to contemporary inequality. People move for a better life and opportunities, to the “centre” from the “margins”. In that sense, the diversity of European teams, the larger pool of talent they attract, is another peek into the heat that creates a melting pot. And Embolo’s gesture acknowledges that.