World Cup 2018: Football Sans Frontières

Matthias Hangst/Getty Images France celebrating their win against Croatia with the World Cup Trophy, Moscow, July 15, 2018
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images. France celebrating their win against Croatia with the World Cup Trophy, Moscow, July 15, 2018

It was about mid-way through the first half, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, when those of us in the US who joined the billion or so humans who watched the World Cup Final on TV were given our first view, accompanied by mentions from our announcers on Fox about lightning nearby, of the angry grey skies over Russia’s capital. By that point, the fittingly eventful finale to a most eventful tournament had already seen three goals. The wily Croatians, zipping the ball forward with intent, had dominated the opening exchanges. But France, as a top team set up by its old defensive midfielder of a coach less to dominate matches than to win them, had taken an undeserved lead. Their impish attacker Antoine Griezmann went down rather easily under a Croatian challenge to force a free kick, then arced a shapely cross into the penalty box that careened meanly off one of Croatia’s own players and past their fluorescent-clad goalie, Danijel Subašić, into his net.

The Balkan side, quite used to fighting back, was unfazed. The powerful winger Ivan Perišić lashed home a stunning goal—before he unluckily canceled out his equalizer, with the help of the video assistant referee, when he was judged to have handled the ball inside the Croatian box. As Griezmann stepped up to take the resulting penalty, thunder rolled over Moscow. And Vladimir Putin, grinning in a luxury box, murmured blandishments to another pleased-looking man in a suit, FIFA President Gianni Infantino. The two leaders soaked up the gratifying spectacle of what was, if not by popular acclamation, then at least according to the ads in every break on Fox, the culmination of “the greatest World Cup ever.”

Putin and Infantino had reason for satisfaction. Over four weeks and sixty-three games before the final—games full of upsets and drama and peachy goals—nary a drop of rain or more significant mishap like crowd violence had sullied the proceedings. Even the Pussy Riot pitch invasion seemed not so much an irritant to Putin as part of the final’s entertainment. Such was Russia’s success in orchestrating this tournament that it wasn’t hard to imagine, in that old Soviet stadium lavishly renovated for the occasion, Putin reassuring Infantino that he had even the weather under control—that the rainclouds wouldn’t burst until after the match. Sure enough, minutes after the final whistle of the Cup’s final game marking France’s 4–2 victory, the heavens opened.

Two years ago, Putin was an international pariah whose best friends on the world stage were grim dictators like Bashar al-Assad and Ramzan Kadyrov. Now the Russian leader was playing gracious host to the world, before a global TV audience of a billion-plus. And a few hours later, he would fly to Helsinki for another flattering photo op with America’s fawning president. Not a bad summer for an old KGB apparatchik. Nor for FIFA, which netted a reported $5 billion from the tournament.

But what about for the rest of us? By most accounts, very many Russians, especially those in provincial host-cities, enjoyed themselves thoroughly. Not just in rooting for Russia’s upstart team, but also fraternizing with convivial visitors from Brazil or Senegal or Peru—or, at least, renting them their flats on Airbnb.

As for those of us who tuned into matches staged in Saransk and Volgograd and Rostov-on-Don, the Cup provided the unique alchemy of a sporting festival predicated on competition among nations that, as its old French founder envisioned, also nurtured feelings of friendship and commonality. All the more so, when the football was as fine as it often was with such vibrant encounters as Mexico’s bold and beautiful win over defending champions Germany (daringly forecast by Francisco Goldman in our series here), and a Clásico Ibérico between Portugal and Spain, a 3–3 draw between two top teams that featured scintillating play and Cristiano Ronaldo’s rescuing a draw for his country, moments from the death, with a sublime free kick—celebrated as only he can.

Avid soccer-watchers have for years maintained that the World Cup is not where football is played at the highest level. That would be a claim more fairly applied to the European Champions League, where a dozen or so of the continent’s richest clubs have assembled all-star teams from the four corners of the earth. The result, when such groups of players train and play together over months and years, are teams whose depth of understanding and speed of play can astonish. In such a world football ecosystem, the prevailing wisdom says, only rarely can a top national team compete with the likes of today’s Barcelona or Bayern Munich or Real Madrid—and then only because, as with Spain and Barca a decade or so ago, its core of players are from one of those clubs.

But part of the fun of the World Cups, which often bring together far-flung players who’ve only met for brief training camps ahead of qualifying games, is to see which countries seem to gel and which crash out amid internal squabbling. This year, both of the 2014 finalists in Brazil, Germany and Argentina, had star-studded squads whose stars openly fell out with their antic coaches. (Germany went down in the group stage, while Argentina, despite Messi’s heroics against Nigeria, always looked a mess—with the old Argentine dread in full evidence in its round-of-sixteen demise against Croatia.) When a brilliant Belgian side disposed of Brazil in the quarterfinals, the “demise of South America” became one of the Cup’s meta-narratives; another was the failure of any team from Africa, for the first time since 1982, to reach the second round. The real anomaly in the all-European final four was a young England team whose presence, to those unfamiliar with the many layers of British self-loathing and psychodrama when it comes to failing at World Cups, was thanks to its remarkable achievement in actually winning a penalty shootout (against an off-key Colombia).

It was around that moment that Fox commentator Alexi Lalas coined, in a tweet, “Best. #WorldCup. Ever.” A former US national team defender once best-known for his shaggy red hair, Lalas has evolved into a bloviator in the Fox News style, shouting over foreign analysts with superior soccer pedigrees. Fox adopted the Lalas slogan, one suspects, to draw viewers to telecasts since numbers were down from 2014 when the US was playing in Brazil. Cue Gianni Infantino’s speaking in his capacity as the world’s king of soccer that this “fantastic, incredible, unbelievable World Cup” was, indeed, the Best Ever.

Aficionados armed with numbers have pointed out that this Cup did feature more games than any predecessor with a tying or winning goal after the eightieth minute (twenty) and that there was only one nil-nil draw among its sixty-four matches. More anecdotally, the tournament felt wide open. Even the worst games—the Russians’ strategy against Spain, after nicking an early goal, was to stack ten men behind the ball and defend furiously for ninety minutes—offered the compensatory drama of a raucous home crowd, in a nation that knows more than most about weathering attrition. But the truth, as some of the pieces we’ve published in this series have suggested, is that the question of a World Cup’s greatness depends on where you sit—on how your team does, but also if you happen to be the right age for that Cup to lodge in your memory as a kind of Platonic ideal of World Cup-ness. (If you’re Simon Kuper’s kids in Paris, having watched Les Bleus win at just the right time, that will live on as a “golden summer”.)

There was pain for fans of those teams—like Peru, Morocco, and Egypt—whose presence in Russia was years coming but whose big hopes ended with disappointing results, if with dignity intact. Trusty Mexico followed an electrifying start—that famous win over Germany—by reverting faithfully to type, with an agonizing round-of-sixteen loss to Brazil—but not before its fans had forged a remarkable bond with another country’s. As Mexico played out a lackluster loss to Sweden, it needed the un-fancied South Korea to pull off a major upset by beating mighty Germany itself—and the Koreans, seizing the chance, obliged. Among the innumerable bits of digital ephemera posted by fans to social media over the last month, few were so moving as a posse of overjoyed fans in Mexico City making their way to the South Korean embassy, and, pulling the grinning ambassador into an impromptu dance on the street, toasting with shots of tequila.

None of us needed to be in Mexico, or Russia, to experience such epiphanies of connection. There’s no time like a World Cup for a world city like New York to reveal itself, still, as a metropolis of immigrants where anyone is welcome to take a subway ride from El Gran Uruguayo Bakery, in Jackson Heights, after hailing Uruguay’s dashing striker Edinson Cavani with his compatriots, to little Senegal on 116th Street in Harlem, to catch the Lions of Teranga at Le Baobab in the afternoon. In the taqueria in Brooklyn where I caught the end of Belgium’s stellar game against Japan—a game in which the unfancied Japanese, playing with tremendous cohesion and drive, led 2-0 through brilliant goals, only for Belgium to storm back and win—I sat near white kids in Jordans and Guatemalans in boots and black women in tights, all of our eyes stuck to the screen. I watched my companions’ hearts leap from their chests, after the match, toward the weeping players on the losing side. The Haitian writer Dany Laferrière wrote a book called I Am a Japanese Writer; in that moment, we were all Japanese footballers. Many of us know exactly what Vanessa Barbara’s brother meant when he said, “I want to live in a World Cup.” Now that living in a World Cup is done for another four years, we mourn having to return to living merely in the world, a world less full of hope and of play.

The televisual spectacle presented by the world’s most popular game can certainly be manipulated as propaganda by autocrats. But just as no outcome in a football game is ever guaranteed, so does the Cup allow other meanings. Witness the rise of the brilliant young Frenchman Kylian Mbappé. Breaking out as the world game’s new big star, he has also become a familiar symbol—flags hailing “Liberté, Egalité, Mbappé” have been much in evidence—of what a genuinely multicultural France might look like. Since the last time a team of brown and black footballers did France proud, in 1998, we’ve learned that those gains can be illusory. But France’s victory in 2018 was born in its banlieues—and it was brought up, prosaically put, by social democracy—that is, by the political will embodied in public policy, in France as in Belgium in recent years, not to shove immigrants’ kids to the margins of society, but to incorporate those who learn to play in the slums into organized sport with good facilities and committed coaching.

Social democracy isn’t just the way to win at public health outcomes; it’s the way to win at sport, too. But there is something more potent to recognize, as football now heads home (though not to England, with apologies to fans of Harry Kane). For the game now returns to its roots, which are not in stadiums or on TV, but in vacant lots, on streets, and in playgrounds around the globe. Until recently, the kids playing pickup games, lending their own vocabulary to a universal grammar, were calling themselves Messi. Soon, it may be Mbappé. Wherever they’re growing up, they don’t want to live walled off in a ghetto. They want to live in the world. Football is how they do it.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is the author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World, and the co-editor of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. He teaches at NYU. (June 2018)

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