As one of the most widely watched human activity, soccer's World Cup Championship unleashes raw competition between countries, raising emotions that cover almost every stripe we know and triggering nationalism of even a guttural kind. We have seen, over the years, how the four-year tournament has even branded itself far outside the soccer field: corporations compete intensely to grab prime advertising spots to maximise their own sales; host countries go on a tourist splurge, investing billions to show a better face; and hobnobbing the players has become a social “in-thing”, the higher the fame of that player, the larger the stupefied audience becomes.
Reams of newsprint get churned out with every tournament, touching so many diverse facets. For example, we know Russia's sponsorship income has not quite equalled Brazil's in 2014; and that the Nigerian captain's father was supposedly held hostage for a ransom back home. Yet, not enough comes across about the tournament's impact on international relations. Given its constitution, interest, and purpose, Kautilyan Kronicles is keen to further explore.
Just for openers, since each game pits the intense nationalism competitively (both on and off the field), how might this peter out once the tournament is over? Will, for instance, Japan's team go back with excess nationalist baggage from doing well, or dilute it through exposure to so many other cultures and national sentiments, or even produce some hybrid? In an age when breath-taking technological breakthroughs have been smashing extant boundaries, such as artificial intelligence finding human substitutes to compete with humans, will World Cup participation take a country back into nationalism, or even blend both sets of sentiments? Particularly for first-time participants, will it instead blow internationalism far over and above any provincial makeup?
Beginning with the host country, Russia, we clearly see the Russian team going far beyond even Russian expectations, but also helping the recently reviled country upgrade its global reputation. In a panoply of global politics, Russia plunged to its nadir by conducting alleged criminal activities in other countries (Great Britain, for example), engaging in cyber-espionage (as in the United States), and doping Olympian athletes for which 43 were permanently banned. Yet, the tournament's ability to whitewash Russia globally clearly softens the grimaces Vladimir Putin might otherwise receive in international conferences, particularly across Europe. For good or bad, international relations may be revamped because of a tournament affecting more people across the world than the heavily covered ping-pong diplomacy did from 1971.
Extending that, when we think of the many remote Russian soccer venues opened up for international viewing, reviewing, and interaction, the Russia to emerge from the tournament is expected to be hypothetically more internationalist than nationalist. That positive image contrasts with the racist streak running rampant across the country, and which now goes beyond targeting Chechnyan separatists and other minorities to harassing visitors from Africa and Asia.
Most importantly, the glaring absence of Russia's most formidable adversary outside the soccer-field, the United States, helps the country sow the seeds of camaraderie with other countries. Leaving aside a well-known cliché that begins “when the cat's away”, amid a political square-off with any country in international negotiations, not only every action but also every attitude adds up, what the United States lost by not qualifying may mean more than Russia exploiting the circumstance. What we could speculate is how the ever transformative Putin can reinvent himself now that he has already depicted James Bond fishing in icy waters bare-chested.
If we kept our eyes and ears open over recent West European rumblings, we might notch more mileage exploring attitudinal changes within certain countries against the backdrop of the continent's populist outburst. Many hitherto free-flowing, globally-minded West European countries have been held hostages to, not just nationalistic interpretations, but also a vile form of nationalism brooking upon fascism. Britain, Belgium, France, and Germany, among others, have seen how major policy positions, especially related to migrant treatment, were particularly or completely overhauled/subverted. Do these homegrown attitudes travel to the tournament, or will players/spectators return with more cosmopolitan embraces?
Will England's performances enhance the Brexit impulse, or rekindle the European-mindedness that prevailed before the 2014 referendum? After all, The Guardian newspaper already calls it the Remainder Team representing the mere 48 percent who opposed the European Union exit vote in 2016? Together with Belgium and France, Britain has seen Islamic jihadi incidents first-hand. Yet, with Belgium's team showing many non-European faces and colour, and France's team being dubbed “the strongest African team” in Russia, will victories help soothe domestic racial tensions, thereby diluting populism, at least temporarily?
Or, on the flip side, did Germany's lacklustre performances in, and exit from, the tournament fan the flames of isolation, or more bluntly, nationalism? If so, would that rock the migrant boat Angela Merkl seeks to stabilise, both within the country through her possible CSU (Christian Socialist Union) accommodation through Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, who bluntly opposes migrant concessions, and across Europe, for example, handling migrants through the “welcoming” centres agreed upon in June 2018? That CSU rapprochement is crucial for her continuity as Chancellor, while the migrant deal is imperative to prevent any European Union collapse. Would any future solution be somehow traced back to World Cup performances in Moscow, much like Adolf Hitler's future policy directions were to his 1936 Olympics treatment of non-white athletes?
Moving beyond Europe to Africa and Latin America, might the recruitment of players from within these continents by European clubs actually be feeding nationalism, and thereby populism, or in fact be promoting internationalism? The socialisation of African recruits in European cities, for example, is usually less talked about than their soccer-field performances, but are they as pivotal in their European community's profile as in their European team profile? After all, the whistling at, and aping, African players in European stadia is no longer occasional: it is too common to ignore. Shifting to the national team, do European communities offer the same off-field treatment to their World Cup African recruits as their teams do on-field?
Likewise for Latin America, hitherto home of soccer excellence. Has the wide European recruitment of Latin players over a long period of time eventually subdue their home-country performances, as we saw with Argentina's Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini? Broader still, are Latin countries performing less well in world cup tournaments these days because their players have too many loyalties, or become too well-known entities, than when their loyalty was singular (to their Latin club and country), and they were less well known? Transplanting that question to African countries, where national soccer leagues and tournaments are far too new and still too undeveloped, can their soccer “exports” today propel those countries to greater soccer salience a generation down the road? In other words, will future World Cup winners emanate as much from Africa as they do from Europe or Latin America today?
Much like the 2018 tournament's progress thus far, too much lie intriguingly up in the air. Yet, as teachers always tell their students, don't come back without exploring all options.
Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is the head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).