The contradictions of international sport: vehicle of nationalism or embodiment of cosmopolitanism?

The contradictions of international sport: vehicle of nationalism or embodiment of cosmopolitanism?

Max Mauro

Tyson Alaoma is a 17-year old promising boxer from Rome. Last November he won the Italian Youth Championship title in the 81kg category. While collecting his trophy, Alaoma displayed a large Nigerian flag. He later claimed that he did so to protest against Italian citizenship law, which prevents him from competing for the country where he was born, rather than as an act of celebration of the country of origin of his parents. ‘Why am I not allowed to represent Italy despite being the national champion? I feel I am Italian but you do not think the same’, he told the daily La Repubblica. Alaoma is not the first such case in Italian sport. Over the last ten years, several young athletes with an immigrant background have found themselves in the same situation.

Yassine Rachik, a mid-distance runner of Moroccan origin who migrated to Italy with his family at the age of 10, won 22 Italian national titles before being granted Italian citizenship in May 2015. This only happened after a petition signed by 20.000 people which solicited the intervention of the President of the Republic. To this day, children born in Italy to foreign nationals can only obtain Italian citizenship at the age of 18. However, this is not an automatic step, as they have to submit a formal application, which could also be refused.

A reform bill of the citizenship law has been sitting in the Italian parliament since October 2015. It was first approved by the Chamber of Deputies, but the necessary vote of the second house of the parliament, the Senate, was delayed a number of times. The centre-left majority proved too divided on this issue to pass the bill before the legislature came to an end in December 2017. The ‘ius soli’ law (as it is quite improperly known in public discourse as in fact it does not recognise the right of citizenship by birth) has been regularly used by right-wing and populist parties to attack migration policy. If approved, the law would have benefitted about 800.000 under 18s born and raised in Italy. They are young people who have attended Italian public schools, played sport for Italian teams and even won national titles. But they cannot be considered Italians due to a law which places ‘blood’ (ius sanguinis) above any other citizenship criteria.

Across Europe, the nation-state, a visionary creation of the 19th century, has become the central terrain of practices and discourses of exclusion. It is particularly young people, migrants and children of migrants, who are the victims of this, as they have to negotiate their inclusion into the ‘national outlook’ (1) amid an increasingly hostile environment. It is not by chance that sport serves as the venue where issues of nationality and citizenship come prominently to the fore. Giardina and Donnelly believe that youth sporting culture has become ‘a veritable battleground of social combatants struggling over the boundary lines of group identity and affiliation, over the very definition of citizenship and belonging’ (2). In Italy, the most prominent case is still that of Mario Balotelli, the first second generation migrant to play for the senior national football team, who obtained Italian citizenship at the age of 18. Hailed as a sporting hero and the symbol of the ‘new Italians’ in 2012, following his performance at the UEFA European Championship where Italy ended runners-up behind Spain, only two years later he was made the scapegoat for the demise of Italy at the FIFA Men’s World Cup.

The picture of Balotelli lying on the pitch at the end of the game, his hands covering his face, became the focus of an extraordinary project of racialization across newspapers and other media. All national newspaper published a picture of Balotelli, often more than one, to support their stories about the ‘Azzurri’. Some used this picture in their front page, with titles such as ‘Out of the world’, ‘Blue disaster’ (blue being the colour of the team’s jersey), and ‘World demise’. One player, the only black player in the team, was made to symbolise the failure of the national sport. One newspaper (Il Giornale, owned by Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo) made this association even more explicit: ‘Italy’s failure. Balotelli’s betrayal’. Incorporated in the above-mentioned media discourse, the betrayal of Balotelli appeared not simply that of a player to his team, but that of someone – the black player of immigrant background – who ‘betrayed’ the right to be Italian. As it happened, Balotelli has not played again for Italy.

Modern sports produce tangling contradictions when it comes to citizenship rights and nationality. On the one hand, an increasing number of countries facilitate the acquisition of citizenship to athletes who can bring medals and glory to the country. At the 2014 Rio Olympics, 23 out of 38 members of the Qatari squad were born abroad. They were originally from a variety of countries, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Turkey, Nigeria, China among others. At the same time, according to human rights organizations, migrant workers who have lived in Qatar for decades are denied a path to citizenship by one of the most restrictive citizenship laws in the world.

To some extent, this is not only a feature of small, wealthy countries that wish to enhance their international status through sport. Across Europe, several countries have special legislations in place which accelerate the naturalization of talented sport personalities. Naturalisations are formally justified to acknowledge the contribution made by individuals whose performances are ‘in the interest of the country’. This is the case, for example, of Belgium, Austria, Germany and other countries. On the other hand, as evidenced by the Italian case, nation-states are making citizenship and even residence rights an increasingly tortuous affair for migrants from poorer, non-EU, countries. Responding to a ‘moral panic’ which, in different degrees, is affecting public debates on immigration and national identity across the Global North, state authorities have turned citizenship policy into a device which is never turned off: it constantly redefines the boundaries of the citizen and the multiple categories of non-citizens which are granted partial or none rights to belong. To some extent, the crisis of the nation-state is the crisis of liberal democracy as envisioned by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the lasting legacies of the French Revolution.

In this problematic scenario, can international sport send positive messages of inclusion rather than being used as a means of exclusion and a vehicle for jingoism? If one considers mega international sport events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, there is not much to celebrate. A recent study published in the International Studies Quarterly highlights that ‘nationalism associated with international sporting events like the World Cup increases state aggression’ (3). Some observers suggest that the Olympics should go back to their original – and still stated in the Olympic Charter – principle of being a competition between individual athletes and not between nations. In other words, they should be ‘denationalised’. This would arguably disempower the nationalistic culture so closely associated with this and other global sport events since the 1930s.

At the same time, however, it may deprive youth with an immigrant background of a powerful opportunity to challenge and transform static and restrictive constructions of national identity. According to a study funded by the European Union, ‘national football teams do have an influence on how integration of ethnic minorities is perceived by the general public, especially in receiving countries with strong immigration (i.e. mainly Western Europe)’. The authors of the study highlight that more than two thirds of the citizens interviewed believe that ethnic minority players ‘make an important contribution to the social integration in the countries they play for’.

The case of Italy is quite peculiar in this regard, because as showed by Balotelli and other cases, Italian sport and politics have yet to fully appreciate and embrace the value of social and cultural diversity which characterises Italian society. Immigration is a highly divisive topic across the country, but should national sports foster a more inclusive culture? The available evidence suggests that opportunities for participation in grassroots sport and the inclusion in national teams are valuable means to challenge a culture of discrimination and exclusion of ethnic minorities in society at large.

(1) Beck, U. 2006: The Cosmopolitan Vision, Cambridge: Polity Press.
(2) Giardina, M. and Donnelly, K. M. (eds.) 2008: Youth Culture and Sport, New York: Routledge, p. 9.
(3) Bertoli, A. D. 2017: ‘Nationalism and Conflict: Lessons from International Sports’, International Studies Quarterly, DOI: 10.1093/isq/sqx029


Max Mauro is a lecturer in the School of Law, Business and Communications, Southampton Solent University. His teaching and research are mainly in the fields of media, sport and youth studies. A former recipient of the FIFA/Havelange Research Grant, he is the author of the ‘Balotelli Generation. Issues of Inclusion and Belonging in Italian Football and Society’ (Peter Lang, 2016). Tweets in a personal capacity at @maxmauro10

Photo credit: London 2012 OG, Opening ceremony – National flags.

© 2012 / Comité International Olympique (CIO) / HUET, John