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2018: The year identity politics collided with sport

The day before France lifted the FIFA World Cup in Moscow, after beating Croatia 4-2 in the rain, head coach Didier Deschamps stated that his team were proud to represent the continent of Africa.

“It has always been the case that the French team has always had players from Africa and from other countries and territories,” Deschamps said, referencing the 14 players in his squad, including Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe, who can trace their origins back to Africa. 

Deschamps, who captained a multi-ethnic Les Blues side to world cup glory in 1998 added: “They are all French and they are proud to be French.”

It seems an odd thing for a national team coach to reiterate the patriotic pride of his players ahead of the most important night of their careers and yet it encapsulated the ideological tug of war that intensified throughout the year.

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2018 was a year crisscrossed with intersecting lines that divided people into one of two polarising camps on a number of issues. In the world of Brexit, Bolsonaro, Trump, veganism, climate change and #MeToo there is little room for compromise. You’re either with us or against us. Sport, as it has always done, acted as a lens from which to view these challenging narratives.

In a year that saw a rise in American nationalism and the promise of walls and draconian foreign policies, the NFL, that great bastion of white bread American culture, continued to stretch across the Atlantic and stage matches at London’s Wembley Stadium.

With the promise of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox set to bring the greatest rivalry in the greatest American pastime to London in June, this mismatch of cultures looks set to continue for some time.

Juxtapositions like these were a prevailing theme for this turn around the sun. Serena Williams’ remarkable comeback to the top of world tennis after maternity leave cemented her position at the head of the sport’s pantheon of greats.

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Her fight for gender equality is as important, arguably more so, than her exploits on the court and has seen her become a champion for millions of young women around the world.

Among them is 21-year-old Naomi Osaka who locked horns with her hero in the final of the US Open in September.

Though Osaka would canter to a 6-2, 6-4 victory, her maiden Grand Slam win will forever be marred by the heated exchange between Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos who was branded a “liar” and a “thief” for handing the 23 Slam winner three code violations.

Contradictions abounded as the struggle for inclusivity resulted in a shuffling dance where two forward steps were followed by one step back.

This year a Ballon d’Or was awarded to a female player for the first time in history, but an excited worldwide audience watched on with slack jaws as Norway’s sensational striker Ada Hegerberg was asked if she could ‘twerk’ by the male presenter.

Even the most captivating comeback story of 2018 came with a healthy side order of nuance. Tyson Fury battled back from depression, suicidal thoughts and a Denotay Wilder knockdown to rise off the canvas and become a symbol of redemption for millions around the world struggling with mental health. If only he offered the same feelings of goodwill for the LGBTQI community.

A united Ireland demonstrated their strength by beating the seemingly unbeatable New Zealand All Blacks just months after Jacob Rees-Mogg had suggested people should be ‘inspected’ at the Irish border following an inevitable plunge into a chaotic Brexit.

If only that poor excuse for Dickensian villain was at the Aviva Stadium. Perhaps his antiquated worldview might have been shaken (or at least doused in torrent of Guinness).

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Nelson Mandela once said that sport has the power to change the world but the games we play do not exist in isolation. They’re folded and enveloped in the churning political and social tides of our times and the times we live in today are as turbulent as they’ve ever been.

It feels as if we’re at a tipping point. Will we continue to draw lines in the sand and entrench the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ or will we unite under common banners and ideals? Will we sit idly by as the planet warms and the icecaps melt or will we take responsibility for the world we intend to leave for our children?

Whichever way you lean, whatever actions you choose to take, one constant remains. The ceaseless joys and heartbreaks and narratives and heroes and villains that are provided by sport serve as both distractions and mirrors to the world around us.

Sport exists both in isolation to the realpolitik of the day as well as the narrow viewfinder from which we interrogate it. If 2018 is anything to go by, 2019 will see that narrow gap between sports and identity politics shrink even more.

Featured photograph/Wikipedia Commons/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Daniel Gallan
A South African native, Daniel is interested in the blurred lines between sport and politics, class and culture. After graduating with a BA honours in journalism from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg he pursued a career in freelance sports reporting and feature writing. He also hosts South Africa's only cricket podcast Short Fine Legs. Over the years Daniel has contributed for various print and online publications such as Wisden, ESPN Cricket Monthly, Cricbuzz, the Mail & Guardian, SuperSport, SA Cricket Magazine, the Daily Maverick and others. He was the Content Director for CONQA Sport, a sports and business development organisation, where he published weekly features and hosted panel discussion with prominent athletes and sports practitioners. Now, working as the editor of the Sports Gazette, Daniel is passionate to bring his experience and enthusiasm to the UK. Follow him on Twitter @danielgallan
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