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The son of Algerian immigrants inspired France’s team of immigrants to World Cup glory in 1998, but Zinedine Zidane does not have to be football’s only fairytale immigrant story. (American readers: “football” used here means “soccer.”) Immigrants and sons of immigrants have long enriched most successful international teams. From Italy’s consecutive World Cup wins in the 1930s courtesy of several Argentinians to the most outstanding Portuguese player of the 20th century hailing from Mozambique to the fact that most footballers at this year’s World Cup play in leagues outside their home country, football is clearly the ultimate migrant sport.
With a new ruling from the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) allowing players to move more easily from representing one country to another, teams are set to get even more diverse. In the meantime, here is a quick look at some of the best footballers of immigrant descent on the field at the World Cup in South Africa, which began yesterday:
- Miroslav Klose (Germany): Born in Poland, Klose gained German citizenship through his father. Easily among the best strikers in the world, Klose was the top scorer and thus the Golden Boot winner at the 2006 World Cup in Germany with five goals, and also netted five goals in the 2002 World Cup. Klose is likely to once again play a big part in the Germany squad for this World Cup.
- Klose’s teammate, Mesut Özil, is a German-born midfielder of Turkish descent that Germany snatched from Turkey in a controversial tussle last year.
- Giovani dos Santos (Mexico): The son of Brazilian player Gerardo dos Santos and a Mexican mother, Giovani was born in Mexico and also plays club football in England. He is coming to this World Cup after much hue and cry about his brother, Jonathan dos Santos, being dropped from the squad. Some say that Giovanni dos Santos can have a much better tournament than Argentinian star (and possibly the best player in the world) Lionel Messi. Unlike Messi, dos Santos continues to play consistently and come out firing for his country.
- Ashley Cole (England): Known as one of the best left-backs in the world, Ashley Cole was born in England to a father from Barbados. Never one to shy from controversy, Cole has been the target of several attacks from the anti-immigrant right-wing British National Party of Nick Griffin that believes “Britain is only for the British.” Someone should alert the British National Party that immigration could possibly help England win the World Cup. But maybe that glory won’t settle well for the BNP if it comes with the help of immigrants. God save the Queen.
- Thierry Henry (France): The “hand of Henry” sent France into the final stages of the World Cup when the player born to immigrant parents from Guadeloupe and Martinique scored by knocking the ball into the net with his hand in a do-or-die game against Ireland. The referee missed it, Ireland went up in flames, FIFA did not award a rematch, and no disciplinary action was taken against Henry. Now the French squad is out to prove that it deserves a spot in the final stages and Henry should play a key “hand” in that. France probably boasts the most ethnically diverse team and other stars with immigrant backgrounds include Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, and Hatem Ben Arfa.
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden): A Swede with Bosnian and Croatian parents, Ibrahimovic also plays club football for Barcelona FC in Spain. Ibrahimovic is one of the highest paid players in the world and holds the record for the second highest transfer fee in football history. And he speaks Swedish, Bosnian, English, Italian, and Spanish, which should count for something. Sweden might not advance from the group stage, but Ibrahimovic will certainly be a thorn for the opposition.
- Mauro Camoranesi (Italy): This 33-year-old midfielder already has a World Cup winner title under his belt. Starring in his last World Cup for the men in blue this year, Camoranesi was born in Argentina, but held dual citizenship after playing club football in Italy, which made him eligible to represent either Italy and Argentina. The Italians showed interest first and there was no looking back.
- Neven Subotic (Serbia): Adding to America’s loss column, Neven Subotic is an up and coming defender in the German Bundesliga. He was born in Germany to Serbian parents, and to avoid deportation to Bosnia after the expiry of their residency, the family came to the U.S. Subotic grew up playing football in the youth clubs and eventually joined the University of South Florida team. He played for the United States U-20, but after being dropped from the squad, settled with playing for the Serbia national side.
- Tim Cahill (Australia): The Socceroes are not as strong as the team that went out to Italy in the second round of the World Cup in 2006. Still, they have a reliable Tim Cahill who has many honors: first Australian to score at the World Cup Finals and Asian Cup Finals and most goals by an Australian at the World Cup Finals. Cahill was born in Australia to a Samoan mother and father of Irish descent and played for Samoa U-20 at the age of 14. Now he is a “hazard” to three time World Cup winner, Germany.
- Jose Torres (USA) had the option of playing for either Mexico or the United States and he has no regrets about joining the men in red, white, and blue. Only 22, Torres is developing into a quick and stylish midfielder who could come up big for the United States if given the chance to play. Torres is a Texan native born to immigrant parents from Mexico.
Additionally, the U.S.A. is relying on 21-year old son of Haitian immigrants Jozy Altidore to score goals up front.
The greatest sporting event on the planet is largely snubbed in the U.S. as an immigrant sport because first-generation immigrants are more likely to watch soccer than their American-born counterparts. While the anti-immigrant Center for Immigrant Studies has complained about the lack of loyalty that immigrants display to the U.S., many fail to realize is that practically all the U.S. stars—Landon Donovan, Hercules Gomez, Carlos Bocanegro, Sacha Kljestan, “Oguchi” Onyewu, and Tim Howard—have at least one immigrant parent or are immigrants themselves.
Let the games begin!
Photo Credit: Shine 2010