It is upon us again. Four long years have passed, and now the 21st World Cup, hosted in Russia, will soon be broadcast around the world in dozens of languages. Beginning 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 fervor. Even Pope Francis will get in on it, lending a legitimacy to my quasi-spiritual ardor, 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!”
The entire planet will soon be gripped in a sudden and near-religious fervor.
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 El Salvador in 1969. Many an old-world 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 politicized 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.
International football raises the stakes of football’s identity politics to the national level.
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 globalized 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 globalized 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?
America’s Unfulfilled Potential
This is the high drama that football creates. The ritual clash illuminates society’s tensions. What must be recognized is that, unlike warfare, economics, diplomacy or even creative industries, it is a relatively egalitarian way for nations and tribes to compete with one another.
You need not go to Russia in the summer of 2018 to witness this. I think of the local migrant farmworker camps near my hometown in the agricultural heart of California’s Central Valley, which have their own little football league. The boys of the camps meet in ferocious and hard-fought clashes on fields yellowed by the harsh summer sun and Gov. Jerry Brown’s water conservation rules. Every free moment of the summer is spent outside, kicking the ball around. There are no trophies for participation here; even the pick-up games after school are played to win. And when the same 100 degree heat in which their parents pick crops finally tires the boys out, they sit in the shade and trade stories of Messi, Ronaldo and Chicharito.
Mexican-Americans breathe football in a way most other Americans, even those who play the sport, do not. I once saw the farmworker camp team play a private club team full of predominantly white, affluent, college-bound kids; the children of vegetable-buyers, not vegetable-pickers. It was donated and hand-me down cleats versus brand new ones. Nevertheless, the migrant kids overwhelmed their more affluent peers. Final score: 8-0.
There is a clue in that anecdote for why the United States, for all its status as a superpower, remains a weak presence in global football. Despite enormous pools of untapped, largely Latino immigrant football talent and passion, youth football in the United States (sorry, soccer) remains, at the competitive level, the exclusive domain of wealthy suburbanites. The U.S. youth soccer system is pay-to-play, with the best college teams recruiting from expensive club teams. Children from less affluent families get priced out and overlooked by scouts. The irony of all this is that in the United States, the world’s most diverse country, the world’s most popular sport has become an enclave of white affluence.
Mexican-Americans breathe football in a way most other Americans, even those who play the sport, do not.
At the same time, Major League Soccer, which is based in the United States, is increasingly a league worth watching, though it creates new problems for American soccer. Top-level international players like Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Spain’s David Villa and Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger are “retiring” to M.L.S. as they age out of more competitive European leagues and are lured by American cash. While this gives American fans like me the chance to watch legends in the flesh, it comes at the cost of American youth development. American demand for world-class football diverts considerable financial resources away from the development of local talent. It is no accident that the most promising contemporary American players, like Christian Pulisic, were trained in Germany.
Given all these deep-seated issues around youth development and diversity, it should not have been a surprise when the United States failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Nevertheless it was a monumental setback for a country that spent more on the sport than ever before. The U.S. national team players will have to watch from home as nations like first-timers Senegal and Panama have their shot at glory. As recently as 2014, Americans dreamed of holding their own against such titans as Brazil, Germany and Spain. It turns out the United States, despite all the money spent, could not triumph even over Trinidad and Tobago. But that is also what is fantastic about football. A nation like Trinidad and Tobago could beat a nation like the United States! In how many other competitions can that be said?
America’s football losing streak won’t be forever. My Dad has a saying: “Once the Americans get an idea into their heads, they can do anything. They can land on the moon.” The United States needs to harness the fundamental egalitarian nature of soccer. The nation of immigrants from around the world should be uniquely suited to conquer the world’s sport. But until the United States learns to find its champions among the kids of California farmworker camps as much as the kids of professionals in the suburbs, its glory days will have to wait.
Putin’s World Cup
The largest shadow over this year’s World Cup will be cast by Vladimir Putin. Given that FIFA may be the most laughably corrupt organization 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.
Putin is hardly the first authoritarian leader to benefit from the World Cup.
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 a 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 utilizing 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 our modern and increasingly secular world’s desperation for a sense of purpose and belonging.
Football and the Meaning of Life
For me, the World Cup provides exactly that sense of purpose and belonging. For Mexican-Americans, it is often a form of cultural survival. We feel the Mexican national team represents us; already Mexico plays more of its “home” games in the United States than in Mexico. It makes economic sense: Mexican-Americans have larger disposable incomes than Mexicans; that is why so many of us came here in the first place. More money means more tickets sold, more jerseys sold and at higher prices. The national team means more to us here than in Mexico. In Mexico you care about your local team, Club America or Chivas or Tijuana or whoever, but on this side of the border, it is your way of expressing your Mexican pride, your Mexican roots in a country that wishes to build walls against us. Mexico’s chief rivalry is against the United States, a battle that for many of us represents our own divided cultural identity. No wonder advocates of closed borders like Ann Coulter have been so alarmed by the spread of football in the United States.
These are the stakes of football; it is our nations, it is ourselves. This is why there is so much violence in football: because football contains everything worth dying for, which is another way of saying everything worth living for. One day, I will teach my children football as a means of knowing themselves. I will teach my children football as a means of knowing others. Football is a team sport; and teamwork is the best practice for building a society.
One day, I will teach my children football as a means of knowing themselves.
This is not to say one must be a cog in a collectivist machine; the sport offers plenty for the individual too. Unsurpassed glory awaits those who compete at the highest level of football. Think of Pele, Beckham, Ronaldo. But on a team, the tension between the individual and the collective is transformed into the best efforts of the individual serving the needs of the team. This is the best way to teach the responsibilities of citizenship: that privileges and rights come from responsibilities.
In this technocratic world of routine, here, once every four years is duty, conflict, glory and belonging in all its ancient forms, delivered to the world through modern communication. Sure, it is commercialized and corrupt and all a big show. But like religion, it offers comforts and answers questions. It inspires violence but can pass on the most important of values and lessons. At the risk of sounding ridiculous: I do not know if it is possible for me to care about something more than I care for football.
This summer it will happen again. For months, speculation has been rampant and anticipation has built. Some say it is time for Brazil or Spain to return to former glory, others that Germany will be the first since the ’60s to win back to back to titles, and still others that it must be Argentina as this is Messi’s last chance to win it all. No one can be sure.
All we know is the world will once again come together to witness it. Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin. The heads of FIFA and migrant farmworkers from California. The world’s greatest athletes and little old me, all of us, together, hanging on the outcome. We will gather in the stadiums, we will watch on our phones, we will listen on the radio, we will celebrate in bars. All of us, groaning and cheering, at every pass, every foul, yelling at the ref, praying to God in every language on earth, from the Alps and the Sahara, from Seattle to Tokyo, from Copenhagen to Lima, from presidential palaces and refugee camps, all of us, unable to breathe, unable to watch, unable to look away, oh god it’s going to be a penalty kick isn’t it, no puede ser! No fue penal, no fue penal, no fue penal, no fue penal!!
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the 1969 "soccer war" as between Honduras and Guatemala. The conflict was between Honduras and El Salvador.