By John Cheney-Lippold
The World Cup is a complicated phenomenon, an event as unparalleled in prestige as it is in contradiction. On the one hand millions upon millions of dollars are spent on the spectacle while the poverty of this year’s host country, South Africa, is conveniently swept aside in the face of stadiums and luxury hotel that serve as symbols of “development” and “modernization.” And on the same hand we also gladly embrace the general timbre on nationalism, an organizing device that pits human beings against each other in a senseless division of our species—a situation that seems particularly inappropriate given the recent flurries of violence between the U.S. and Mexico, Palestine and Israel, and North and South Korea.
But on the other (and admittedly more trivial) hand is the game itself. If you’ve never had the chance to yell “Goal!” at the top of your lungs, I strongly urge you to do so. This exhalation, the truest and most natural in the human world, is a cherished treasure of the most siren-calling sort, an infectious, slightly intelligible slur that evokes an immediate camaraderie with anyone within ear shot. To celebrate a goal is to manifest passion, steamy in its ability to conjure up excitement and earnest in its longevity and unbridled devotion. One can sing along to a song or feign interest in a conversation, but to yell “Goal!” is to be true, honest and beautiful. It is to be entrapped in a collectivity, to vocally release in a cathartic swirl of “go” and “ol” soundings with your colleagues that requires no pitch and no rhythm: just noise, breath and brilliance.
This might seem overly romantic, and it surely is. But what other sport is so akin to love, where chants and songs echo the pathos of a torn suitor (“I’ll love you more each day”), the obsession of an unrelenting stalker (“I’ll follow you wherever you go”), or even the murderous but patriotic frenzy of fascist shock troopers (“We’ll kill the opposition”). And what other sport has become so poetic, a metaphor for war (as Mexican literary superstar Octavio Paz repeatedly said), globalization (a popular book on the subject is titled “How Soccer Explains the World”), or national psyche (as explained by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano in his “Soccer in Sun and Shadow”). So bearing both rhetorical spoils and unbridled passion we enter the forum where these irrationalities come into full view.
The first match of the World Cup begins Friday in South Africa, marking the first in a month of games whose final is likely to be watched, according to conservative estimate, by almost three times the number of people who watched the Super Bowl. The stakes in the Cup are of the highest dramatic order: Legends are made, careers are ruined, and the empowering ecstasy of a win is subsequently castrated only by a team’s eventual defeat as the tournament progresses. The Cup can demonstrate the best of humans in the skill of the sport, the worst of humans in the sorry outbreaks of violence that surround it, and the ambiguous middle ground exemplified by the promise of Argentine national coach/former soccer god Diego Maradona to streak down the streets of Buenos Aires if his team wins.
The Cup is an event that serves many different masters, from the state to corporate sponsorship to the people themselves. Yet the Cup most certainly isn’t just a bread-and-circuses moment, a contemporary equivalent of Roman distraction in which we forget about injustice or our own relative despair as we drunkenly demand the metaphorical blood of a red card or mourn for the metaphorical death of a missed penalty. Rather it provides us with a moment of solidarity, a moment quite unlike the Olympics with its focus on national pride and the athletic specimen—the project of masculine power, of which country can birth the finest specimens of the human species from the loins of the motherland. The Cup is also about pride, but pride in the most collective and egalitarian sense: creating a solidarity almost unmatched by politics, religion or other forms of fandom. It affiliates itself with a kind of public nationalism, of what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community,” that doesn’t necessarily interface with the ruling government of a country. Instead it is a nationalism of shared experience and collectivity, of attentively watching one’s team play on the world’s stage while knowing that the entirety of his or her country is doing the same.
Politically, this national pride can always be a bit scary. Clearly such a focus on the national is ripe for proto-fascists and conservatives waiting to pounce on victory in order to prove some sort of haphazardly assembled argument of genetic superiority. But I want to suggest that we see this pride as a potential example of counter-power in a manner very similar to the ways struggles for “national liberation” erupted in the mid-20th century. The cohesiveness demonstrated by each nation is usually not oriented toward support of a government or ruling regime (with requisite caveats for dictatorship-era South America, Thatcher-esque England, and Italy). Rather, the team is about the people, of projecting not a state power but a people’s power, a condition in which supporters can simultaneously chastise the corruption of one’s own country while basking in the goal of a fellow national. Often the players of these countries do not come from the echelons that partake in wine and caviar but from shantytowns and barrios, representing a population that looks quite unlike the people who do the governing and that earns much, much less. And the game is a game of the people, the rabble, the masses—it is branded as the “poor man’s sport,” the “world’s game,” but also, and most important, “the beautiful game.”
Its beauty comes from the fact that soccer can bring out emotion that is without comparison, a sense of wholeness with an “other”: that elusive person who doesn’t look like you, who doesn’t live in your neighborhood, but cheers for the same team and feels with the same unmeasurable devotion that you have. This is a nationalism that isn’t immediately creepy or homogenizing. Rather it is a nationalism dominated by fraternity and solidarity. It can be a nationalism that helps us learn to confront the individualizing practices of neoliberalism that try to establish, through privatization and fables of an “ownership society,” that we are first and foremost individuals, that individualism is the cornerstone of our politics and prosperity, and that social cohesion is merely an unnecessary and potentially dangerous mix of mass delirium and the specters of socialism. Of course “can” doesn’t mean “will,” as the potential fear of fascist resurgence is always something to worry about, especially in this era of growing fundamentalism and right-wing movements.
But the World Cup also provides a critique of the world system, offering us countless examples of countries that have historically dominated world events being embarrassed by their poorer, but more talented, rivals. Breathtaking is the David-and-Goliath moment when the colonized beats the colonizer (Senegal beating defending World Cup champions France in 2002) or when a contemporary empire is bested by its ideological opponent (Iran beating the U.S. in 1998). While the Olympics show the clichéd ways that rich countries can develop athletic skill in accord with their GDP, the Cup is never a shoo-in, nor is it a game reserved for the rich. The developing world is the origin of some of the most talented players and teams, not to mention the World Cup itself, with only five Cup finals having been played without at least one side representing the Global South. African teams, while considerably weaker compared to four years ago, hold a fighting chance for progression; South America maintains itself as the philosopher-king of the sport, demonstrating the capacity to both theorize and lead the future of soccer with innovation and precision. And all of this is mixed with the transnational ways in which players play for their pocketbook for a team in Europe but play with their heart for their home country, a process that has produced a mixed bag of skill sets and strategies that have truly internationalized the game.
But ultimately soccer is just a game, a contest between two teams that ends after 90 minutes of play. The passions of a goal, the drama of a close game, and the tenacious collectivity found at each kickoff is temporal. Like any roller coaster or high school sexual experience, people will ask themselves with groaning disbelief: “It’s over already?” And that is at the same time the most interesting and confusing consequence of soccer fandom, of creating a profound and unnerving connection to something that will necessarily end. But the social relationships we create, or the random bystanders you may assault with a celebratory hug after a game-winning goal, opens up a social space of camaraderie, purpose and passion. It’s a space that connects us as fans and (superficially) reconfigures, for only a short time, the power politics of our global order. So go to a bar or a friend’s house and watch a game. Just be sure that if your team wins to try to not be a jerk about it.
AP / Jerome Delay
A fan of the U.S. team and a supporter of the Iranian squad pose outside a stadium in Lyon, France, before a 1998 World Cup match.