Soccer Keeps Nations Together-- Even As Its Fans Reject Their Leaders
So the penetrating question of the 2018 World Cup of Soccer— better known as Putin’s Festival of Bribery: Why do the large, powerful nations have short national anthems while the smaller countries have ones that go on forever? God Save The Queen (England) is over faster than you can save Bobby Charlton. But Iceland and Peru seem more like a six-part Netflix series than an anthem.
That said, it’s difficult to detach soccer from patriotism. To wit, the comments this week of the England manager Gareth Southgate— latest in the lineage of English managerial failure at the Word Cup and the Euro Championships. Southgate got his knickers in a knot when some of his keen strategies in Russia showed up in the British press.
Now if the English team had shown the same evil genius as its own press corps has displayed over the decades, it might not be zero for 13 in the World Cups since 1966. (It’s been a similar drought in the Euro championships.) Fleet Street is pitiless in a way Beckham, Rooney and Keegan never were when presented with a chance to score. See: Maradona’s Hand Of God.
To Southgate this press leak was akin to Wikileaks printing the spying secrets of the U.S. The media, growled Southgate, has to decide whether they want England to win or not. Implicit in this rant was the suggestion that, in an England torn by Brexit fears, we’re all in this together. Soccer or trade. While the marriage of team and media is implicit in certain nations— watch these Panamanian TV announcers — it was something of a brazen demand from Southgate in light of the hyper-independent press of the UK.
The brouhaha quickly died down as Southgate made soothing noises to the denizens of the English press box. Mollified, Southgate’s team then went out and pummelled Panama 6-1 to guarantee themselves a spot in the next round. (Whether England beating up on the Panamanians will mean anything against next opponent Belgium remains to be seen.)
But the loyalty oath was a reminder that soccer is still a metaphor for politics. Author Franklin Foer did a nice examination of this theme in his 2005 book How Soccer Explains The World. He cited, among other things, the sectarian violence in Ireland, gangster governance in the post-Yugoslavian Balkans and the bizarre tendency of Tottenham Hotspur F.C. and AFC Ajax fans for borrowing Jewish symbols and terminology to explain the world at the time.
Foer concluded that soccer is a bulwark against globalization, one of the few symbols of national cohesion left. Soccer’s relevance remains very potent at the 2018 WC. Watching the devotion of, say, the Belgians, Brazilians, Senegalese, Saudis or French as they shout their national anthem, one can forget that their nations are tossed by violent political controversies.
Immigration, economic disruption and class resentments are tearing at the fabric of these countries— even as they are subsumed in the drama of soccer. The disenfranchised still sing for their football side.
The current World Cup appears like the whisper of a world order that has been held together by Western values since WW II. The notion of democratizing the emerging world—the operating thought of George W. Bush’s bloody sojourn in Iraq— seems a distant signal. The reality today seems more like the failed nation states of the Middle East teeming toward the European continent like King Alaric and the Visigoths pushing at Rome’s borders in the 4th century.
The debate over German chancellor Angela Merkel opening the Syrian immigration spigot is a symptom of something more profound and threatening than can be cured by a lusty rendition of La Marseillaise or God Save The Queen. Yet soccer holds back the tempest that’s coming as surely as Harry Kane scoring hat tricks for England.
The presence of the fabulously rich international stars like Kane is another telling aspect of this WC. So we see the princely order of soccer aristocracy in Russia, ordered in their finery like the French nobility on the morning of Agincourt. To many in the failing nations of Africa, Asia or South America, soccer is their only ticket out of poverty and into relevance. In societies ridden with corruption and class structure, there is no more direct way to the salvation of riches and privilege than kicking or defending a soccer ball at the highest level.
This is the Neymar lottery, with appropriately absurd odds of cracking Brazil’s starting squad or lining up beside Messi in Argentina’s starting 11. And yet they but the ticket.This acting against their own interests is an appeal to ancient blood, the tribal current— not IT, AI or GW. As the ball settles in the back of a net, no one is programming software or inventing a cure for cancer.
These are the fantasies of the desperate played against a field of dreams. Singing anthems to myths they no longer believe in nations they no longer recognize.
They are screaming at the top of their lungs, I matter, I count, I am alive.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on his website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand will be available this fall.