Balancing the Cultural Tightrope – A Battle We Underrate

In a world that is becoming more globalized, we’re seeing an increase in players with dual passports. Germany’s most elite team, Bayern Munich, currently has twelve players in their first team that were eligible to represent more than one nation on the international stage. 

This multiculturalism in football is everywhere. 

In France, which is the current envy of world football, the national team is predominantly made up of players whose parents immigrated from former colonial territories. Out of all the French players on their 2018 World Cup winning squad, sixteen of them were born and raised in the greater Paris area, where the city’s multi-culturalism and culture of street football greatly influenced their beginnings. 

The brightest young talents across Europe have faced the prospect of picking one nation over the other. Whenever a player makes this monumental decision, a public inquest begins into their thought process.

Worse yet, when they make a mistake in a big match, the vitriol aimed at them seems ten times worse compared to their ‘native’ counterparts.

Look no further than England’s heartbreaking defeat to Italy in penalties at the final of Euro 2020. Three black players, Marcus Rashford, Jaden Sancho, and Bukayo Saka missed their penalties. The talented trio was immediately subject to the most disgusting form of racism on social media. 

Many people in England didn’t seem to realize that the game wouldn’t have even gone to penalties had manager Gareth Southgate allowed his squad to harness their offensive tools instead of sitting deep. Yet, despite these facts, the black players took the brunt of the blame. 

A few years earlier, another prominent footballer, Mesut Ozil, quit his national team in disgust after the 2018 World Cup, citing racial abuse from the German public. 

Ozil, who created the most chances of any German player at the tournament, was blamed for the early exit. Other players such as Thomas Mueller had horrible tournaments, but most of the vitriol was directed at Ozil, who declared “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

Artwork by Charbak Dipta

Ui Hoenness, the then-president of Germany’s largest club, Bayern Munich, called Ozil’s tenure on the national team a ‘nightmare.’ Ozil scored 23 goals in 94 appearances for the national team while starting in all seven games at the 2014 World Cup, which Germany won. Despite Ozil’s ill-informed decision to take a picture with Turkish dictator Erdogan before the World Cup, his point still stands. 

These incidents have made me reflect on my journey as a fan.

When I first immigrated to the United States in 1999, I was a fish out of water. I wasn’t exactly sure where I fit. I was too Korean for Americans, but too American for Koreans. It’s a common issue that many minorities face in the West. 

The one avenue I used to connect with my ‘native-born’ American friends was football. After all, no matter what language you speak, football is universal. The language is putting the ball into the net. 

However, sports can only take you so far. There are only so many goals to score before insults about your ‘slant eyes’ fill the air. There are only so many shots you can block before people ask you whether you’re related to Kim Jong-un or eat dogs. 

So whenever the World Cup would come around, I faced a dilemma. Did I root for the United States or South Korea? Would rooting too hard for Korea signal that I wasn’t a real American?

How can we root so proudly for a nation that purposefully excluded Asian immigrants, has yet to atone for the theft of land from Native American tribes, or do anything meaningful to stop the killing of unarmed African Americans?

Whenever I hear the American anthem play during a tournament, I’m filled with a sense of pride, but also sadness as I realize how much work is left to be done.

That’s why I find it ludicrous when fans rag on footballers who decide to represent the country of their parents rather than the one they grew up in.

I think, in the future, people would do well to realize that the sons and daughters of immigrants have every right to make their own decisions regarding which country they wish to represent. 

It’s the least they deserve for navigating the perils of being caught in the middle of two cultures. 

Albert Kim

Albert Kim is a Korean American writer/ football analyst toiling in Seoul, SK. His work has appeared on FIFA Plus, Al-Jazeera, and Netflix. Besides the USMNT and South Korean national team, he is a devoted follower of the church of Oliver Kahn and FC Bayern Munchen. His love for football was cultivated during the 2002 World Cup. He apologizes to the Italian people for the golden goal in the round of 16. Follow him on Twitter @Albert_Kim2022 and Insta @albertkim711