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The Hidden (and Not So Hidden) Politics of the 2018 World Cup

July 17,2018 23:26

CAPE TOWN — The 2018 World Cup revealed much about the state of our world, and not simply in the triumphal smile of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the arch-nemesis of the liberal global order, as he presided over the final match, the planet's ...

Globalization in football encounters little resistance, even from those who oppose it in the political realm, because trends of the past two decades suggest that xenophobic nationalism is not a winning formula for choosing a national team or its tactics. If Nigel Farage, an anti-immigrant politician in Britain, advocated that England again limit the selection of black players or revive England’s “national style,” he’d be laughed at by any football fan. In football in 2018, if not in politics, xenophobia is incompatible with winning.
Another key lesson from this year’s World Cup was that football is rarely a game decided by individual stars — the hype around epic showdowns between Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazil’s Neymar was mocked by the failure of all three to lift their teams beyond mediocrity. Football, like history itself, is an enterprise whose outcomes are determined less by “great men” than by the complex interaction of decisions and actions by a wide range of allied and opposing actors. The same principle is worth bearing in mind, also, when trying to make sense of a global political landscape crowded with noisy demagogues.
The 2018 World Cup largely evaded the narrative of the proverbial clash of nationalisms. Sure, there was a small taste in matches echoing the Balkan wars, whether in the form of Switzerland’s Kosovar-Albanian refugee stars, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, who made the double-headed eagle sign of the Albanian flag to celebrate scoring against Serbia; the Serbian foreign minister proclaiming his team’s victory over Costa Rica as “one small, sweet revenge” for that country’s vote to recognize Kosovo; or reports from the Croatian dressing room of the singing of songs celebrating that country’s fascist Ustashe movement.
But if anything, the tournament in Russia was more of a celebration of the “globalism” so detested by the nationalist right. The final four teams were all European, but half of Belgium’s and England’s players and three-quarters of France’s had roots in Africa and the Caribbean. Even Russia, nobody’s poster child for cosmopolitanism, only took their quarterfinal match into penalties thanks to a goal by their recently naturalized Brazilian fullback, Mário Fernandes.
The migrations of the past half century have made the identity politics of the World Cup steadily more complex: Brazil, for example, has long been adopted as a kind of proxy representative of Africa, and much of the global south. African fans, as the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has noted, are not bound in their affections by the nation-state borders imposed on the continent by European colonialism. A fan in Congo might cheer passionately for Senegal against Japan, but could face a dilemma when watching Belgium (with its five players of Congolese parentage) play France (which included four). A soccer spectacle that gives physical form to the idea of the nation reminds us also that our identities may be more complex, fluid and connected than those traditionally permitted by the singularity of citizenship.
So, when President Trump salutes France for playing “extraordinary soccer” and Mr. Putin for staging “a truly great World Cup,” he’s applauding a spectacle that in every sense repudiates the core beliefs he has championed in politics.
More than anything else, Sunday’s final match offered a vision: Despite the dangerous fissures that continue to divide us and the darkening prospects in many corners of the globe, we remain a single, connected human community capable of sharing the drama and the unbridled joy at the global triumph of a French team drawn from the immigrant suburbs of Paris — and all the epic possibilities offered by the intimacy of such sharing.

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