The latest victim of The Global American Deathstar
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a World Cup on. If you’re in America it’s time once more to lament the strange, communistic sport whose popularity you can’t quite get your head around. If you’re anywhere else in the world – and your nation has qualified – then it may well be the sole focus of your attention for the next 3 weeks.
A World Cup has a way of grabbing the cultural narrative like little else. There’s only really the summer Olympics to rival it in terms of global reach and participation, and even then, no one can truly say they care about beating their hated geopolitical rivals in synchronized swimming or freestyle BMX.
Football though – that’s different. In the absence of any big global conflict since 1945, Association Football has filled the void of overt, combative nationalism. Orwell famously said that “sport is war minus the shooting,” and so every four years the World Cup becomes the battleground on which otherwise real conflicts play out bloodlessly. There are myriad examples of this, like East Germany vs West Germany in the 1974 tournament, but perhaps none is more famous than Diego Maradona’s 1986 “Hand of God” goal for Argentina against England, an example of blatant and cynical cheating to give Argentina the lead in a game they eventually won 2-1. Maradona himself said that the victory was divine payback for the Argentinians being routed in the Falklands War four years prior. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the average Englishman may have preferred to have won the game than retain those distant islands.
The World Cup is important. On a national level, it provides an increasingly rare measure for a nation to judge itself against its peers. On a cultural level, it provides a great coming-together, almost a national folkmoot. Taxi drivers and their clients have common ground when discussing the dearth of talent in central midfield. Men in pubs and bars cast knowing eyes and sage glances over the groups months in advance, identifying potential pitfalls, easy three-pointers and weighing up which group becomes this year’s Group of Death. Workers earmark the games that fall during contracted hours, and how they’re going to avoid doing any work while they’re on. Even those who hate football feel a sense of camaraderie with other World Cup haters over the month.
During a normal World Cup, a social calendar of parties, barbecues and get-togethers spring up organically, interweaved around key fixtures both confirmed and speculative. In England, it is one of the very few times when the white flag of St George adorns almost every public space, private home and car window. There is a subsection of the online Right who denounces sportsball as bread and circuses, and they may even have a point, but to bemoan such obvious moments of national solidarity and the fleeting return of a healthy parochialism whilst decrying the rarity of such moments in our public diet the rest of the time seems contradictory.
Due to the immense hegemonic power of a World Cup, advertisers and politicians long ago sized up the opportunities presented. Global megabrands like Nike and Adidas get in early and hard. Marketing campaigns featuring famous players doing inane things like scissor kicks (it’s always scissor kicks) in front of a green screen begin months in advance. All senior and aspiring politicians in any European country clamor to be pictured watching their country’s game, predictably wincing and gasping along with the proles. Football is sexy. Politics isn’t. Politicians leach the fresh warm blood pumped by a major football tournament greedily and with relish. Not that anybody believes they actually enjoy it.
Which leads us neatly to the problem.
For all the warmth and enthusiasm expressed so far, this year I’m struggling to care. It’s not the football itself (although the tediously autistic Video Assistant Referee has done its best in recent years to suck out all spontaneity and joy from the game), it is that this year we have been presented with a world first – a Genetically Modified World Cup.
It certainly looks like a World Cup – there are big stadiums, the usual teams, players we all recognize. But something unheimlich persists. For a start, it’s November. By the time the tournament reaches its denouement it will be the third week of Advent. In the Northern Hemisphere, the World Cup is a summer event. All the previously mentioned social engagements rely on that vague hope that the English summer will behave. Packed pub beer gardens throng and hum, and the sickly-sweet smell of charcoal lists lazily down terraced streets and swirls around estates. Many of the great World Cup games have led on to greater nights, buoyed by the baked-in scent of summer and the hubris of beating Colombia on penalties.
This winter World Cup is only taking place because the Qataris wanted their showcase come hell or high water, and the usual summer dates would have seen temperatures of around 50 degrees Celsius. The regard for what the audience wants out of the World Cup is a distant third beyond the demands of the Gulf State and the bulging pockets of FIFA officials. At this time of year, it is dark at 4 pm in Britain, and the rain doesn’t seem to have stopped since September. The bacchanalian feast of football is more like the ghost at the banquet, reminding us what we could be enjoying had better choices been made. This may seem trivial, but it’s not. Imagine if someone moved the 4th of July to mid-January. It speaks to a bigger concern, that the few remaining traditions and rituals are only as strong as the bank accounts of those who guard them.
The other, even bigger apprehension with this World Cup is that soccer seems to have taken a backseat to scolding. The Agenda is foregrounded, more important than the entertainment. The BBC cut away from the opening ceremony to broadcast a drably serious documentary about homosexuality and woman’s liberation in the Gulf states. Every outside broadcast around the barren and bare stadia seems desperate to find some fan to say “yeah, the football was pleasing but what I really want to see is women have the right to vote in free and fair elections,” or “Our defense was good but gay rights are better”. The interviewers’ disappointment is tangible when the fans say they are enjoying the football and having a nice time. The guardians of morality like Germany, England and Denmark are in agony at being unable to wear their forbidden “One Love” rainbow armbands to show just how much they care. The western media is gorging itself on projections of homophobic, deceitful Arab militias prowling the streets of Doha looking for innocent westerners drinking alcohol and eating bacon in a somewhat gay way. The decision to ban beer in stadiums the night before the first game was an amusing powerplay by the Qataris, no doubt already fed up with the hectoring tone adopted by the world’s press.
Simply put, FIFA knew what they were getting into when they awarded the World Cup to Qatar, and so now any feigned acts of propriety are sobbed through dollar-stained tears. The night before the opening ceremony, Infantino, FIFA’s president, bizarrely defended Qatar with the soon-to-be-immortal lines:
“Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel [like] a migrant worker.”
It almost defies comment.
Even at the time of writing, an invader has entered the field of play in the Portugal vs Uruguay game brandishing the Current Thing Trifecta: An LGBT rainbow flag, a message saying “Save Ukraine” on the front of his t-shirt, and “respect for Iranian women” on the back. These people have no love for the game, they love only moral grandstanding. Untamed shrews screaming at those just trying to forget about the awfulness of the world for 90 minutes and enjoy rare sporting theatre. But like Just Stop Oil activists, the message is deemed so crucially important as to trump all else.
The World Cup isn’t about tedious nagging for contemporary politics. It’s about escapism, it is about moments of pure beauty or pure outrage that will forever burn in your heart or stomach. Football is the simplest game, and it can – admittedly – sometimes be a bit dull. But when it roars, it roars with a ferocity and power simply unmatched. Heroes and villains tussle gladly, and enjoyably the heroes don’t always win. Images from World Cups past are etched into the collective consciousness and provide a lingua franca for almost anyone who knows about football to converse, regardless of linguistic or cultural barriers.
Moments like Marco Tardelli’s rapturous ecstasy on scoring the second goal for Italy in the 1982 final against Germany, tears streaming and arms pumping, transmitted a rare unbridled joy. Or 1990, Gascoigne’s tears in Turin where the world wept with him. In 1994, Bebeto and the Brazilians’ genial ‘nursing the baby’ celebration contrasted with the Italians’ heartbreak in the final where beloved Baggio (“The Man Who Died Standing”) sent his penalty into orbit. In 1998, a last-minute spectacular goal against Argentina from Dennis Bergkamp reduced a commentator to paroxysms and inspired infinite playground copycats. Then there was Banks’ impossible save, the Cryuff Turn, Maradona’s Goal of the Century, Beckham’s red card, Ronaldinho’s lob, Zidane’s career-ending headbutt, Brazil losing 7-1 in their own World Cup… moments of rawest emotion, moments that we have so few of outside of sport.
The Global American Deathstar hangs menacingly over all aspects of cultural life, and little escapes its orbit. The modern fashion for bludgeoning an unwilling audience over the head with progressive politics has rattled through Kaepernick’s NFL, the celebrated backstoriess of Tom Daley and Simone Biles in the Olympics, Djokovic’s vaccine avoidance in world Tennis, and a hundred other sports and events. Where an audience hopes for entertainment, the pious gatekeepers of the regime see a lectern from which to heckle, berate and cajole. These are missionaries with extraordinary zeal for conformity, and Sportswashing is an effective way of sugaring the pill. The global reach is unparalleled, and the propaganda is relentless.
The World Cup is now caught in the tractor beam and unlikely to be freed. Football doesn’t need a gloss layer of Liberal Arts posturing and socially-conscious humanitarian subplots to make it better. It needs to be left alone. There are myriad other opportunities for the Current Thing to be shoved in your face, up your nose, in your brain. Let us have this. In the words of New Order’s seminal 1990 World Cup anthem – “when something’s good it’s never gone.” All we have left is to just hope that’s true.