What the World Cup can teach us about everything

It is upon us again. Four long years have passed, and now the 21st World Cup, hosted in Russia, is being broadcast around the world in dozens of languages.

Jun 22, 2018

By Antonio De Loera-Brust
It is upon us again. Four long years have passed, and now the 21st World Cup, hosted in Russia, is being broadcast around the world in dozens of languages. From June 14, we will have a month of football matches almost every day to settle once again which nation is the best footballing nation in the world. The entire planet will be gripped in a sudden and near-religious fervour. Even Pope Francis will get in on it, lending a legitimacy to my quasispiritual ardour, and providing perhaps even more divine aid for Argentina, as if Lionel Messi were not enough.

The French existentialist Albert Camus once wrote, “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe to football.” This is the quote I fall back upon when I want to appear intellectual in my justification for how madly infatuated I am with football (please note: I shall refer to the sport played with one’s feet as football for the duration of this article — because it makes sense). I often feel the need to explain myself to those who wonder why the one goal produced in an otherwise uneventful 90 minutes can have me celebrating, laughing, in tears on the top of a table, arms raised, yelling: “Gooooooooooooooooooool!”

If you already understand why the world goes insane for the World Cup, then no words of mine are necessary. You know that no words could explain it all anyway; its magnitude, its all-encompassing importance. But if you don’t understand, this essay is for you. This is my humble attempt to welcome newcomers into the warm embrace of the global epidemic of football. This is an attempt to explain the stakes, the history, the drama of the World Cup. The World Cup is a black hole, an eternal and incomprehensible force that draws everything toward it, that bends time itself and from which nothing can escape. If I succeed in infecting you, then perhaps you, too, will be found once every four years, jumping for joy, weeping in ecstasy or crushed by defeat. Join me in the madness.

The World Cup as ritual
It is hard to overstate just how much football means to people around the world. The sport has triggered violent riots and even an all-out war between Honduras and Guatemala in 1969. Many an oldworld hatred has found new life through the sport, complete with corporate sponsorship. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona’s famous rivalry gives voice to longstanding regional and separatist tensions in Spain. The “Old Firm Derby” between Celtic and Rangers, both based in Glasgow, is a proxy battle for the Northern Irish Troubles, pitting the Irish, Republican and Catholic FC Celtic against the British, Unionist and Protestant FC Rangers. In Buenos Aires, the “Superclasico” pits the Boca Juniors, historically associated with Argentina’s Italian working-class immigrants, against River Plate, known as the team of the affluent, their fans “the millionaires.” Rome’s “Derby della Capitale,” infamous for spectator violence, sees AS Roma face off against SS Lazio, the latter team being notorious for its fascist-leaning supporter base. Football abroad is simply weighed down by history. There are no comparably politicised rivalries in American sports, not even the Yankees versus the Red Sox.

International football simply raises the stakes of football’s identity politics to the national level. For example, the “Hand of God” goal scored by Argentine legend Diego Maradona against England in the 1986 World Cup match cannot be discussed, nor its enormous impact in both England and Argentina understood, without the context of the Falklands war. Argentines, and many others, forgave the blatant handball as an act of anticolonial defiance. And for all their greater military strength, in the end the English could only watch as Maradona scored again (with what was widely considered the best World Cup goal of the century). Argentina went on to win the game and, eventually, the World Cup, striking a symbolic blow against Margaret Thatcher. Is it madness that two goals in 1986 should resonate politically for decades? Yes, but that is the whole point.

What else can one expect from the only sport that is truly shared across the whole world? How could a competition pitting the avatars of nations against one another not be seen as a font of symbolism and greater meaning? The World Cup is a ritual World War, a cathartic ceremony of the old nationalisms made obsolete by our new globalised world. Our teams carry all our hopes, hatreds and history with them. Whether it exorcises or feeds those demons is up for intense academic debate. But what is clear is that only in our globalszed world is such a ritual possible. This is tribalism brought to you by Coca Cola and Adidas.

When else will the streets of Cairo and Montevideo, Mexico City and Berlin, be silent at the exact same moment, regardless of the time zone, suffering the same anxiety, living the same thrills?

Putin’s World Cup — a showcase for non-violence
The largest shadow over this year’s World Cup will be cast by Vladimir Putin. Given that FIFA may be the most laughably corrupt organisation in the world, the Russian Federation is certainly a good fit as the 2018 host. And while I do not believe the games are rigged (there might be a worldwide riot if it were ever proven they were), it does seem awfully convenient for the hosts that Russia’s opening home game is against Saudi Arabia, one of the few teams in the tournament ranked lower than Russia. By all accounts, Vladimir Putin’s dream is to restore Russia to its former imperial glory. What better way to assert Russian influence on the world stage than by becoming the stage for the world’s most watched event?

Putin is hardly the first authoritarian leader to benefit from the World Cup. The second-ever World Cup was used by Mussolini as an advertisement for fascism all the way back in 1934. In the aftermath of an attempted assassination of a Russian defector in the United Kingdom, many European heads of state have announced they will not be attending the games. Some have called for a boycott of the World Cup in the spirit of the U.S. boycott of the 1984 Moscow Olympic Games. Still, despite being fully aware of the symbolic lift the tournament will give the Putin regime, I won’t boycott the games. I’ll watch every second of every game I can. And to be honest, I’m not sure there is anything that could change that.

At the conclusion of the 2014 World Cup, Pope Francis perfectly encapsulated all the positives of the sport, tweeting: “The World Cup allowed people from different countries and religions to come together. May sport always promote the culture of encounter.” But football brings us together and divides at the same time. The “culture of encounter” in football is not always what Pope Francis would hope for. Encounters between football fans are often marred by violence and hatred. Mass casualties have occurred in riots and stampedes in stadiums across the world, with over 70 killed in an Egyptian Football riot in 2012. The football scene in Pope Francis’ own Argentina is notoriously violent. Serious resources around the world have gone into policing the football world and attempting to make it safer and more family friendly. In Russia, normally home to a racist and homophobic hooligan scene, the formidable state security services are utilising the full might of the Russian state to ensure no violence disrupts Putin’s showcase.

In the face of so much violence and corruption, many have blamed football itself. Yet I would argue that anything that has ever meant this much has always been accompanied by violence. The true source of this violence is the simple fact that it holds a meaning equivalent to any ideology for millions of fans around the world. Football’s power is such that appeals from the national team of Ivory Coast even helped end a vicious civil war. Perhaps the fact that a sport has been given so much meaning reflects more than anything else our modern and increasingly secular world’s desperation for a sense of purpose and belonging. --America Magazine

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