It would be an understatement to say that some people take football (or soccer to the uncultured) seriously. Wars have been fought because of the beautiful game, literally. Thus, it would seem that the worst aspects of nationalism would be on display at this year’s World Cup. I mean what other event (short of actual combat) so inspires individuals to wrap themselves in their respective nations’ flags? With populism on the rise, a resurgence in independence movements across the globe, and an ever growing hostility towards migrants, it would stand to reason that football’s biggest tournament would play to people’s worst fears.
You see, despite my belief in the general goodness of people on an individual basis, when dealing with collectives, manipulated by culture and politics, I have a harder time coming to the same conclusion. In other words: crowds are stupid. And yet, besides a few isolated acts of discrimination (oh Argentina), the mood here in Moscow has been decisively tolerant.
It’s All About Football
At an open-air café in the central Moscow district of Taganskaya, I met a group of Argentinians on their first trip out of the country. From the providence of Chaco, they had managed to scrape together enough money together to come to Russia and purchase a few tickets. The group was impressed by how well everyone got along. “We went to a bar and ran into some Brazilians,” said Sergio, a mechanic. “I thought it would be trouble, but everyone had a great time.”
I asked if his mood would change if Argentina were eliminated early from the Cup. “Look, this isn’t a vacation; it’s about supporting your team. This is work…” Sergio stirred his coffee with an air of distraction. Then he smiled. “But, you know, it’s just football.”
Later in the evening, I was sitting with a Brazilian in Pizzeria Da Giuseppe watching Peru play Denmark. The Brazilian was already drunk, but clearly having a good time. “I always dreamed of drinking in Russia,” he joked. “It’s a 24-hour party here, and the whole world has been invited.” He leaned over towards me but kept his eyes glued to the television screen. “You know, last night I had a conversation with an Israeli, a Tunisian, and a Colombian. We talked for hours about football. Only at the World Cup could that happen.”
If there is a universal language, it is football. It transcends class and race, providing a point in common, a beginning to a conversation. The World Cup may just be the closest thing to a truly global shared event that we have. It remains in our collective consciousness long after the last goal has been scored and the fans have returned home.
It’s All About The Players
Romelu Lukaku is Belgium’s star forward, netting two of the country’s three goals against Panama, in the team’s debut at this year’s World Cup. Born and raised in Antwerp to Congolese parents and playing for Manchester United in England’s Premier League, Lukaku is a representative of a new reality. “I’ll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch, and I’ll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighborhood we’re in,” he said in a recent interview.
In many ways, football is ahead of the curve. Players like Lukaku, transcend the boundaries of what we considered nationhood. And because of the global nature of the game, the World Cup has become increasingly about the individual athletes and less about the countries they represent. One Arab reporter recently found this out when the three Syrians he was interviewing in St. Petersburg confessed that they were supporting England because of the Premier League. “We know them all, so we show our support.”
It’s All About Us
In spite of the constant talk of tribalism, our globe is more connected than it has ever been, and the International bizarre of sports fans that is the World Cup bears this out. Here in Moscow, different tribes from around the world have gathered to battle each other for 90 minutes on 100 yards of grass. Anyone can join one of these tribes. They care not for religion, race, or creed. All that matters is that you are wearing the right jersey.
It may seem silly, almost divisive, that the color of a piece of cloth can determine inclusivity, but then again haven’t we been doing the very same thing for centuries, separating ourselves through arbitrary constructs based on such superficial distinctions as pigment and the imaginary lines on a map? Humans are social creatures, and we crave a sense of belonging. If it’s in our nature to seek out others and divide ourselves into groups, then I can think of no better way to go about it. After all, it’s just football.