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In a Dark, Endless News Cycle, the World Cup Gave Us Light

July 16,2018 21:19

When history looks back and remembers the stunning 2018 World Cup, what will be the lasting images: Neymar attempting, game after game, to break the land speed record for rolling while clutching your ankle? The referees experimenting with VAR?


Opinion

Ignorance is bliss, but untenable. Temporary distraction, however, is quite nice.

By Tom Philip

Mr. Philip is a culture writer and comedian.

July 16, 2018

Image
A Pussy Riot pitch invader high-fives France's Kylian Mbappé during the World Cup final.CreditThanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press

When history looks back and remembers the stunning 2018 World Cup, what will be the lasting images: Neymar attempting, game after game, to break the land speed record for rolling while clutching your ankle? The referees experimenting with VAR? The replays of celebrating players and fans in rapture, tossing their drinks in the air, after yet another last-minute game-winning goal? (This tournament’s 23 stoppage time goals shattered the previous record.)
Or maybe it will be a singular moment, like Kylian Mbappé’s strike to make it 4-1 and become the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since a man named Pelé. Regardless, this has been hands-down the most entertaining World Cup in recent memory, and it turns out we needed this more than we could have imagined.
The World Cup, while perennially mired in FIFA corruption and never far away from fraught politics (as the Offsides newsletter has shown), is also colorful, joyful, downright good television and, in the grand scheme of things, not all that important.
This is not an insult. It’s an ode. At a time when seven out of 10 Americans admit they are worn out by the high-stakes anxiety of the news, this summer’s tournament couldn’t have come at a better time.

You may have heard: The world is a dark and unstable place right now. Syria is still burning, and chauvinism is on the rise seemingly everywhere. In the United States, Flint, Mich., still does not have clean drinking water, and the government appears to be preoccupied with kidnapping and then losing people’s children.
Luckily, for every new horror or outrage, there has been the respite of obsessively watching a sport in which 22 men sprint after a ball for an hour and a half — the game that can end with a score of 0-0, yet somehow consistently produce moments of ecstasy and tension.
“Egypt are in trouble here,” a Fox commentator said gravely on the second day of the tournament, referring to nothing more than their inability to press Uruguay higher up the field. Egypt’s political landscape remains volatile. And many images of young Arabs and North Africans in Western media are, to put it kindly, reductive.
But for weeks the nation made headlines around the world simply for the exploits of their forward Mohamed Salah, the 26-year-old winger with a wide smile and quick feet, who scored dozens of goals this past season for his English professional club, Liverpool. When Salah scores, he often celebrates by kneeling in prayer — a public display of faith to which his adoring Liverpool fans dedicated an entire tongue-in-cheek chantey:

Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah! If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too. If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. Sitting in the mosque, that’s where I wanna be!

In mid-June, Donald Trump ended an inflammatory anti-immigration speech by hugging the American flag, a truly ridiculous and near-dystopian sight that would have haunted me for days had I not been numbed to the whole thing by Cristiano Ronaldo’s sublime hat trick against Spain and the mini-controversy that erupted around his awful goatee.
On June 27, as the debate raged over whether White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders should have been asked to leave a little restaurant in Virginia, I was preoccupied by Germany’s loss to South Korea, which in a wild turn of events simultaneously sent the defending champions home before the knockout round and put Mexico into knockouts despite having been routed by Sweden.

Please, feel free to engage in the self-important discourse about the proper way to protest being volleyed around by verified Twitter accounts ever since the Sanders incident. I sat it out and instead looked up foreign embassy jobs after seeing a video of Mexican fans holding the Korean consul general to Mexico aloft, celebrating him as if this bespectacled middle-aged gentleman were the hero who had scored the winning goal.

Trump’s second Supreme Court nomination? A watershed moment in American politics, but I missed the empty buildup and hours of conjecture (turns out Kavanaugh was reportedly Kennedy’s mandated pick) because I was too busy laughing and texting my friends about all the cheekily maximalist memes surrounding England’s team and, before that, lying down in a cold dark room to recover from the seven-goal thriller that was France vs. Argentina.
Ignorance is bliss, but untenable. Temporary distraction, however, is quite nice.
Even the host nation Russia got in on the fun. On a geopolitical scale, the nation’s government has a lot to answer for. Still, for those who, like me, are exhausted by “Russia” appearing in headlines and Facebook fights every day, it has been endearing to see TV stations around the world praising the Russians for their strong defense capabilities and inexhaustible aggression in the context of athletics.
For four glorious weeks, the World Cup has also stood guard against the more hollow daily news bits that are, typically, inconsequential but usually invade my newsfeed and my thought.
The speculative master theories on the Mueller probe; the latest nonsensical tweets from President Trump; Papa John’s racist comments on a conference call. The part of my brain dedicated to getting worked up by these trending-for-a-day controversies has taken a much-needed breather.

In a time of threatened democracy, staying vigilant and remaining an engaged citizen is an essential duty. It’s also terribly exhausting. In its small yet oversized way, the World Cup has allowed the news-obsessed among us to remember that some shiny objects of distraction aren’t all so bad. Some, like earnestly cheering for your countrymen — or even better, whimsically for someone else’s country — are probably, in fact, pretty healthy.

The World Cup will not raise wages or fix our crippled health care system. It will not make “Arrested Development” good again, nor will it decide for the left whether Hillary or Bernie was right. It may engender global unity but it can’t end our wars. In fact, there’s a good case to be made that it once flamed the fires of war in Central America.
I am in no way an advocate of looking away. Not being angry, not being scared, not thinking about the barrage of bad news — even for a moment — is a luxury.
In the 52nd minute of the final, three Russians from the protest-art group Pussy Riot stormed the pitch, clad in police uniforms, bringing the match to a brief halt and reminding us that this spectacle of smiley-faced globalism was hosted by a harsh police state. Before security dragged the protesters away, France’s star, Kylian Mbappé — in a moment maybe more brilliant than his goal — smirked and high-fived one of the women.

So thank you for helping us multitask the light with the dark, World Cup, it’s been fun. In the proverbial post-match analysis, that should matter more to us than whoever won the thing.
Except for me — I’m Scottish; so in watching England lose in the semis and in the third-place game, stripped of their World Cup Final dreams, I’m proud to say my country has never been stronger.
Tom Philip (@tommphilip) is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He contributes to Vulture, The New Yorker, GQ and other outlets.

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