those of us who have spent a surprising chunk of our lives rooting for—supporting, as they say in Britain—Les Bleus, the French national football team, have to feel a special exultation and delight in seeing them win the World Cup 2018 Russia. Whether or not they gave their best performance against Croatia, they were certainly the best team in the tournament: the one with the most élan, the most entertaining players in their prime, the most creativity available at the most crucial moments.
To the pleasure of seeing a fine team playing well and winning, a pleasure deepened by the many rough bumps that Les Bleus have known along the way—not least the loss in the final of 2006, when a clearly superior French team, rooted in the anchor of Zinedine Zidane and the harpoon of Thierry Henry, lost to an Italian team that took Machiavellian stratagems to victory—one can add the pleasure of having your favorite sporting team also act as the living refutation to one of the least sportsmanlike people on earth. I am referring, of course, to Donald Trump, whose views on immigration and Europe, loudly brayed out last week on his visit to the U.K., were neatly devastated by the excellence and the teamwork of the diverse French squad.
The French team, now the finest in the world’s most popular sport, is entirely dependent for its greatness on immigration, on the extraordinary things that only a cosmopolitan civilization can achieve. The hybrid nature of the roster is already famous: the great and absurdly entertaining teen-ager Kylian Mbappé, who at various moments seemed to be playing another game at another pace from everyone else, comes from a mixed Algerian and Cameroonian background. N’Golo Kanté’s parents came from Mali; Paul Pogba’s are Guinean. And it’s not only the players who come from obvious post-colonial backflow who are part of this story but the many other players who hold myriad identities. Lucas Hernández, who played so crucial a role in victory with his nimble crosses, was born in Marseilles but was brought up in Spain and has always competed on a club level there, which did not prevent him from playing a beautiful role for France, or from celebrating as loudly as anyone else.
And, of course, this group is only the latest edition of the multiple, polyglot team that has been so dominant in the past twenty years—exactly since the rise of the immigrant stars, with the great Zidane, whose parents came from Algeria, the greatest of all. It is no accident that the French team got great when it got cosmopolitan and not unfair to say that it got great even in the face of the French suspicion of cosmopolitanism. (The senior Le Pen, like his parallel in America, has often grumbled about the look and the makeup of the beloved national team.) Trump, of course, with his pitiful maunderings about the “great product” that some country—was it Great Britain or the United Kingdom or maybe, uh, England?—was damaging, as it continued “losing its culture” through immigration, showed that he has not the least idea of the actual history of immigration in Europe, either its challenges (which are many) or its triumphs (which are more).
The irony, of course, is that the one other place, after sport, where that kind of cosmopolitanism is actually most essential is commerce. Dating back to the Bronze Age, pluralism, if only of ports, was a precondition of prosperity. Every successful businessman practices this, if not everyone admits it, and Trump’s inability to understand the benefits of immigration—how it brings new energy, new talents—is of a piece with his inability to understand the double-flowing virtues of open trade. Apparently able to understand the world only in mobster terms, in terms of the domination of a single tribe or family over others, he cannot understand why football and fair trade both get better the more people, and the more kinds of people, are playing.
Of course, the story of immigration in France is hardly uniformly glorious. Those of us who celebrated the first French World Cup triumph, in 1998, as an unmissable step forward in French confidence and cosmopolitanism, were disappointed, though we should not have been surprised, to witness the continuing difficulties that the process of immigration presents, from both sides. The continued power of the National Front is a reminder of how deep-seated old ethnic and religious grievances are, and the Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo massacres are a reminder of how brutal and how cruelly irrational new grievances can become. Indeed, immigration is always a hard story, stretching out over generations. The worst thing that anyone could have said about Sicilian immigrants to America in 1900 was that they would bring their secret crime societies with them to American cities. Some did. But so impossible is it for us to imagine American life without the Italian presence within it—hello, Joe D.; hey, Francis Albert!—that it becomes just one more instance of the broader truth: pluralism is the key to a happy life.
Sports cure nothing, but they do symbolize a lot. What the French victory on Sunday symbolizes is that to compete against the world around you means to compete with the world around you—to have the world and all its resources on your side, rather than shutting off from them in an insular tantrum. The thing that can make even a Francophile American really blue is to think that, having taught this lesson to the world for so long, it’s now a lesson that the world has to teach us.