Nationalistic competition or cosmopolitan carnival?

Russia and Uruguay's fans watch on a giant screen the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Uruguay and Russia, at the fan zone in Moscow on June 25. Photo: AFP

While I cannot claim to be an avid football fan, the World Cup bug does attack me every four years. I write this column on a sleepless night, disturbed and disenchanted after watching the rather physical and hostile match between England and Colombia, fighting for a place in the quarterfinals.

Advertisers, organisers and politicians promote the event as a unifying force that brings people of all nationalities together. But if we examine the drama around World Cup Football, it appears that strong partisan sentiments deter citizens from transcending national boundaries. In fact it is more a nationalistic competition rather than a cosmopolitan carnival. Watching the Japanese players weeping after their last-minute defeat against Belgium was heart wrenching—for a few moments it appeared as if the entire country's prestige rested on the single game!

This World Cup has actually made me reflect on an issue that has been plaguing many of us—the tension between Nationalism and Universalism in our world today. This is evidenced by the rise of Trumpism as well as Brexit and the anti-immigration movement in Europe. Sadly, the World Cup is widening this gap rather than helping people unite in a global sporting spirit. It might be relevant to recall what George Orwell wrote after Dynamo Moscow's UK tour in 1945: "Sport is an unfailing cause of ill will. If such a visit had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations it could only be to make them slightly worse than before". He concluded that serious sport was "war minus the shooting." Orwell's writing is, as we know, full of irony and metaphors, but then is he far from the truth? Have we not witnessed examples of aggression in the World Cup arena? The players wrestling each other to the ground and overcharged spectators cheering with national flags painted on their faces, created the impression of a gladiatorial contest rather than a friendly game.

World Cup aficionados might think that I am being overly critical about this sports event. Let me clarify that I, too, experience joy when my favourite team scores a goal or spend a sleepless night after its defeat. But in all honesty, I find it difficult to revel in another team's humiliating loss. Perhaps the one positive universal aspect of the World Cup is the unadulterated personal pleasure derived from watching good football. And I cannot deny that there is also some element of globalism generated by the sport. This has become all the more obvious to me after witnessing the selfless support that the Bangladeshis have demonstrated toward teams like Argentina and Brazil. It was particularly moving to see a young man pedalling bamboo baskets at the traffic signal in Dhaka donning an Argentinian t-shirt. He has never visited the country, neither is he likely to. But his sheer admiration for Messi and his father's nostalgia about Maradona have made him an ardent supporter of the team. Given the political and social polarisation in the country today, it is encouraging to see people unite in their patronage for a football team which is "not their own".

Perhaps, this stateless, selfless, almost faceless attachment, partially enabled by the Internet and social media, will generate a new form of globalism. Cristiano Ronaldo apparently has 122 million Facebook followers—12 times the population of his native Portugal. Whether his fans live in a tiny village in Bangladesh or have travelled to Russia to watch him play—they have one thing in common. They love good football and want to watch Ronaldo strike one of his classic goals. And they spontaneously hug each other despite differences when a Neymar goal happens. The bonhomie extends to social get-togethers where animated fans rave about that "flick of the leg" or the cross that was "brilliantly executed". At least for that moment they unite in their joy.

This brings me to another development I noticed in this World Cup. The ethos of individual heroes seems to be fading in favour of collective effort. Teams showcasing Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Salah have fallen to teams with "less star power but more unified purpose". I wonder if this is a trend or an aberration. After all, we cannot also ignore the fact that even after Portugal lost, the Chinese Super League offered Ronaldo a 200 million euro contract! I, for one, hope that the age of football heroes is not over since they help millions cross national boundaries and remain connected to each other in spirit.

As for Orwell's assertion that a "serious" sports competition is like a "war minus the shooting", we must use a qualifier. Leaders and governments may use the event to promote their agenda and hide bad news under the cover of public attention being diverted (like Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen during its match with Russia). But the general population is more ready to embrace other nations as long as good football is being played. We witnessed several instances of players giving a helping hand to their injured opponents and rivals in the stands hugging each other after a game. For me, one of the highlights of this World Cup was watching the Spanish King join in the standing ovation for Russia after Spain's unfortunate defeat and then visit the "fallen" team in the dressing room to give them a leg up. We need more such moments to make this a truly global sporting event!

Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.

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