The World Cup is football’s greatest boast to the planet. This the flagship of a “beautiful game” that is celebrated around the globe with anything from a shiny leather branded ball to a bunch of rolled up socks. It ought not to have been so. After all, how does a sport structured by the most elite part of the British Empire become the world’s game? Perhaps the answer is one that representatives of Cambridge, Eton and Harrow didn’t intend when devising the rules.
It may have been designed to conform with traditional hierarchies but football was too big to be contained in conventionally exclusive boundaries. A World Cup then becomes almost the greatest celebration of that rebellion.
By the time you’ve started to read this piece, the World Cup may well have already kicked off in Moscow. The noise of geopolitics and war threatens to deafen almost every other social arena where the word Russia is mentioned, but football is tin-eared to all of it. The representation of nations in this sport is almost too important to be pinned down by such trivialities. The irony is that it is in this problematic rebuke to concerns of wider world events that the world’s nations may yet find themselves at their best.
As my colleague Sebastian Stafford-Bloor suggested in, “Humbled England are a national tonic” the World Cup can sometimes be a better showcase for a country than the traditional political and business forums designed for that purpose; think of the difference in national personalities that are presented. The 2018 World Cup is the place where America is a country not suspected of belligerence but one respected for sending 88,825 enthusiastic supporters to Russia (the most of any country). There is no Oxbridge elite to speak for England, only men called Gareth from Watford who happily dismiss the views of the foreign secretaries more accustomed to that duty. There are no complexities concerning France’s relationship with its Islamic community, only a celebration of Paul Pogba as a leader of the nation (on the field at least).
When the great Argentine coach Cesar Luis Menotti spoke of footballers being, “privileged interpreter(s) of the feelings and dreams of thousands of people”, it may not have been implausible for him to have gone further to include the word “nations”. We are often told about the power of the market, but at World Cup time even consumer culture, rooted in the whim of the individual, is forcibly diverted to the needs of the collective. Come the World Cup, the market understands that anything it wishes to sell, from clothing to food and drink, is driven by the need for people to be more than just individuals. That England shirt, silly hat, TV, pizza, portable fridge wasn’t bought to distinguish you, it was bought to integrate you with your friends, your compatriots and therefore, ultimately, your country. While this ought to be the paradise of nationalism, World Cups, at their best, force too much inclusion for this trope to play out neatly.
The England Flag, so often weaponised by those demanding cultural conformity, finds itself extending across, ethnic, class and religious boundaries as the football team begins to command support.
Perhaps it is this power of representation that keeps football afloat at a time when it is beset by many of the world’s modern and ancient ills. As the first ball of Russia 2018 gets kicked, all players are faced with the weight of the emotional intangibles that ineluctably come with representing a country. Even the most cynical of players will know instinctively that their duty extends far past making money, improving their brand or advertising their skills. Their shirts are all the heavier for the knowledge of who is inspecting their effort and with what expectations. At the same time, those supporting their countries know instinctively what these players’ efforts will be saying to the world about them as individual constituents of a national picture.
The goal, the piece of skill or the dive and the piece of cynicism can determine a national stereotype quicker than anything said at a G7 conference. In a sport which considers itself to be an international language, all are able to tell its tales whatever their accents. It’s here, at the World Cup, that we convene to have that conversation.
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