In Germany, the results of this week’s general election have left several observers very concerned.
The far-right AfD have become the country’s third-largest party, claiming 13.5% of the vote, and they have done so upon a platform of explicit bigotry. One of their leaders has suggested that refugee children should be sterilised; another has called for the return of Nazi-era terminology; and yet another has attacked the presence of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
Despite this rhetoric - or, perhaps more accurately, because of it - they have attracted the support of millions of citizens. Across the border, in Austria, the position is more startling still. The far-right Freedom Party - narrowly defeated in the 2016 elections - may yet get to lead the government. Xenophobia is not merely on the march; it is sitting in the offices of the town hall, smiling as it takes its afternoon tea.
It is interesting, then - at a time when waves of resentment rush towards non-white people in both these countries - that two of the very best footballers in Germany and Austria are black. Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng and David Alaba are so good, in fact, that the former has long been considered a candidate to captain the country of his birth and the latter has already done so. Boateng, too, is keenly aware of the historical significance of such an accolade - he has expressed hope that he will be the first black man to do so. Some might say that it is possible to overstate the symbolic role of sport in such circumstances; those people would be wise to turn their attentions to the National Football League, where player protests against police injustice have created a conversation that America cannot ignore.
"Boateng and Alaba are inspiring non-white people in challenging times."
Boateng and Alaba present something of a problem for right-wing demagogues, given that they inconveniently defy all the stereotypes thrown at them. It would be much easier for the racist politicians if these men were constantly in trouble with the law, but they appear to be hard-working professionals who are a credit to those who know them and to the clubs they represent. However, this didn’t stop Boateng being the subject of a particularly nasty attack. On the eve of the Euro 2016 tournament, Eric Gauland - one of the AfD’s most prominent figures - said that whilst Germans liked Boateng as a footballer, they wouldn’t want him as a neighbour. The backlash against these remarks was swift, but the inference was clear - no matter how successful you are as a black person in Germany, the AfD will never allow you to feel welcome. For all the controversy that Gauland attracted, this extreme position does not seem to have harmed his party in the polls.
Gauland’s remarks were smarter than they appeared. He knew that there are large parts of Germany where the population of black people is very low, and it was in these regions that he was looking to encourage the fear of the unknown. The post-election results made it clear, too, that the vote for the far-right was highest in these places where the foreigner is unfamiliar. These figures, in a sense, are positive; they suggest that the better white Germans get to know people like Boateng and Alaba, the less likely they are to discriminate against them.
We are still some way from a world of universal acceptance. We saw that a few weeks ago when Germany met the Czech Republic for a football match in Prague, an occasion marred by Nazi chants from some of the travelling support. Crucially, the German national team did not ignore this issue, refusing to celebrate with those fans following the game and then later denouncing them for their ignorance. In many respects, their team has parallels with the France football team of 1998 - then, as now, a multicultural group of individuals led their country to victory in the World Cup, and then, as now, their country experienced the rumblings of right-wing discontent.
Of course, it is not being suggested that footballers can solve these vast and complex social problems by themselves. What Boateng and Alaba can keep doing, as Zidane and Thuram did before them, is to inspire non-white people in Germany and Austria, to provide them with role models in trying times. A key and regrettable feature of the so much of the pre-election media coverage was the almost complete absence of voices from immigrant and refugee backgrounds. So often in the debate about immigration, the people who were supposedly the problem were being discussed as little more than objects, than problems. We can be grateful, then, that the feet of Boateng and Alaba continue to do the talking.