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The Elusive Underdog Magic of the World Cup

July 14,2018 23:18

Neutrality may be a tenable position in geopolitics, but it's tantamount to indifference when tuning into the World Cup. A soccer match can rarely be watched in earnest without one side winning you over. Croatia faces France in the World Cup final on ...

On balance, I’m inclined to throw in my lot with Croatia, mostly because they have never won the World Cup and because their tenacious run through the length of the tournament has been extraordinary. But there’s also a more irrational, dogmatic thrust to my choice: As an Indian, I have never seen, and may never see, my country at the World Cup. Instead, I long for the success of others, particularly those nations that are underdogs both in the sport and on the global stage. I’ve always felt, too, that western European countries have won more than enough on and off the field.
I suppose I channel something of the “non-aligned” solidarity of an earlier era, when the poorer countries of the so-called “developing” world tried to build a tenuous bulwark against the superpowers. Yearning through screens and fiber-optic cables, I wish for the triumph of players I don’t always know from countries (mostly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) I’ve often never been to, for those moments when the World Cup reveals its true magic and tilts the globe upside down.
That magic can be elusive. During the 1994 World Cup, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano watched Bolivia (for whom qualifying for the tournament was “like reaching the moon”) take on “all-powerful” Germany. For a little while, the Bolivians rattled the Germans. “Bolivia went on the attack,” Galeano writes in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, one of the most splendid books on the sport. “They didn’t play equal against equal. No, they played as the big guys against the little. Germany, thrown off their stride, was in flight and Bolivia was in ecstasy.” But when star striker Marco Etcheverry was sent off for kicking out at a German player, Bolivia was doomed to defeat. For Galeano, the inevitability of its loss seemed an act of history, not just sport. “The Bolivians collapsed, wishing they had never sinned against the secret spell cast from the depths of centuries that obliges them to lose.”
Every World Cup extends the possibility of seeing that “secret spell”—the economic and political hierarchy of the world reflected in sport—undone. I pinched myself this June when both Mexico and South Korea managed to revenge Bolivia and beat the 2014 champions Germany. In principle, the tournament is an even playing field, where nations—irrespective of population, GDP, history, life expectancy, military budget, trade surplus, space program, film industry, and so on—are reduced to 11 men on the pitch. However illusory, however briefly, the weak can topple the strong, and the great chasms of the world seem to shrink. Senegal’s monumental 2002 victory, for instance, over incumbent champions (and former colonial master) France still makes me buzz.
In practice, western Europe continues to dominate. Buoyed by the globalization of soccer, it is the booming commercial center of the sport, home to the wealthiest and most powerful domestic leagues, the best resourced teams, the best infrastructure and coaching. For those of us who make a habit of investing our allegiance in underdogs, then, the World Cup often reads like an interminable, run-on sentence of tragedy, loosely punctuated with eruptions of joy. This year was no exception. Only one Asian or African team—Japan—survived the group phase. I mourned Mexico’s catastrophic implosion against Sweden, failed to will Iran over the line against Portugal, and lamented Nigeria’s inability to escape their group.

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