“Do we shape our identity, or does society shape it for us?”
The above quote was an essay prompt that I assigned with the text “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee to my 11th-grade Honors English students this spring at Da Vinci Charter Academy.
During this World Cup, I have thought of that essay prompt every single day.
When the 11 individuals dressed in blue trotted out in front of a sellout crowd of 75,000 at the newly christened Stade de France for the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final, the world laid its eyes on what represented a modern France.
The starting lineup was littered with representations of France’s colonial past with players such as Marcel Desailly, Lillian Thuram and Christian Karembeu, who were born in Ghana, Guadeloupe and New Caledonia, respectively.
After the first two goals were headed in by second-generation Algerian immigrant Zinedine Zidane to secure France’s only World Cup title, his image was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which was ironically constructed to celebrate France’s military victories, including some in North Africa.
“It’s a bit artificial to bring players from abroad and call it the French team,” right-wing politician and French “nationalist” Jean-Marie Le Pen said during the tournament.
While egregiously xenophobic, Le Pen’s comment brought up a point that comes to mind every four years when the world stops to watch 32 teams compete for the World Cup: In an increasingly globalized world, what is national identity?
The United States has never truly colonized, but its global influence was thrust to the center stage each and every game this World Cup.
Against Ghana, substitute John Anthony Brooks covered his face with his hands in disbelief as he celebrated scoring the winning goal.
His raised hands revealed two tattoos on each elbow — one the outline of Berlin, where he grew up, and one the outline of Illinois, where his father hails from.
As a result of his goal, an online prankster changed Brooks’ Wikipedia article to state that he was “the greatest American since Abraham Lincoln.”
The muscular defender is one of five Americans on the U.S. roster who was born into a family that featured an American serviceman father and a German mother, showing the extent of the our nation’s “colonization.”
In the next U.S. game, Jermaine Jones scored one of the best individual goals of the tournament to become “the greatest American since John Anthony Brooks.”
As another one of the German contingent on the team, Jones actually played three times for Germany in 2008 before a FIFA rule change allowed him to represent the United States.
Thanks to the ease of global travel and the improvements in technology, instances similar to this aren’t irregular in the vast world of soccer.
New Jersey-native Giuseppe Rossi plays his international soccer for Italy.
When Mesut Özil plays poorly for Germany, he is considered Turkish. When he plays well, he’s German.
Jerome Boateng plays for Germany while brother Kevin-Prince Boateng plays for Ghana.
Sixteen members of Algeria’s 23-man squad were born in France.
So why do they do it?
It turns out that the reason is very similar for each person.
Jermaine Jones never felt like he fit in with the German team.
Rossi grew up with an Italian family, spoke Italian at home and played for Italian youth clubs.
Off the field he feels American. On it he feels Italian.
The Algerians have a strong sense of country. Even if they were born in France, they grew up labeled as Algerian and therefore feel a stronger connection to the Maghreb than Europe.
Every player, it seems, has his own definition for national identity and each constructs it for himself.
Three years ago, former USA U20 player Preston Zimmerman sent out a 16-tweet barrage about how the German-American players who German-born coach Jurgen Klinsmann fielded weren’t “real Americans” because they “couldn’t speak English.”
By Zimmerman’s definition, the players aren’t American. But their identity isn’t up for Zimmerman to decide, even if the United States does not have an official language.
So if you want to boo players like John Anthony Brooks and Jermaine Jones — because of their thick German accents — that is your constitutional right.
But if you ask me, only they can decide who and what they are.
— Evan Ream is a staff writer for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @EvanReam