In June of 1930, a coup d’etat in Romania brought to power the quixotic King Carol II. He swiftly turned his sights on the very first World Cup, set to take place just more than a month later in Uruguay. The soccer competition was a chance to show to the world a new Romania under his rule, while kindling in Romanians a sense of their global prowess. King Carol pushed a very late bid for his country’s entry into the tournament and encouraged his country’s Football Association to cobble together a squad.
Times have changed. Though much enlarged, the World Cup is still at its core what it was in King Carol’s day: a pageant of nation-states. The tournament was conceived in an early-20th-century Europe when nations (including Romania) were emerging from the wreckage of foundering empires, when Woodrow Wilson’s gospel of national self-determination spread far and wide, and when new forms of media, including radio, expanded the reach of the sport. Along with a flag and an anthem, a soccer team gave a country a tangible form, tracing the contours of a people in the collective striving on the field. The memorable stories of each World Cup are often ones of national apotheosis and national calamity.
But if soccer helped give nations meaning, so too has it transcended them in tapping the globalising currents of more recent times. The 21st-century World Cup is something of a paradox. The success of this festival of nations relies a great deal on energies that cross borders and remove people from their national roots. It suggests that there is actually a false dichotomy between “globalism” and “nativism.” In both soccer and life, it is perfectly possible to be a proud representative of your nation while being helplessly, incurably global.
Take, for instance, the players who will compete in Russia this year. In early iterations of the World Cup, national teams tended to draw their players from within their own borders. A journey to the World Cup was in all respects a journey. With scattered exceptions, players crossed from the familiar to the unfamiliar, coming to strange places, facing unknown players and encountering different styles and tactics of play. The tournament served as a meeting ground of distant peoples and cultures.
That is no longer the case. For one, the average footballer at the World Cup is already a globe-trotter. According to the CIES Football Observatory, 65 per cent of the players selected for this year’s World Cup play professionally for clubs outside their home countries. Unsurprisingly, many of these athletes ply their trade in the wealthiest and most influential domestic competitions of Western Europe: the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A. But they also came from leagues in places as disparate as Mexico, Turkey and China.
Stereotypes abound in the description of the sport, as if the tendencies of a football team might express the soul of a nation — the robust efficiency of the Germans, for instance, or the swaying samba of the Brazilians. But as domestic leagues grow more diverse and players gain exposure abroad, the notion that particular countries have indigenous styles of play becomes more difficult to sustain.
England won the World Cup in 1966 on home soil by playing a brand of direct football, privileging courage and work ethic over skill and guile. But that stereotypical “English football” now can be difficult to find in England, where the top Premier League clubs are managed by a cosmopolitan array of foreign coaches and where the rosters brim with foreign players. What is true of soccer at the club level is also apparent at the international level. A Portuguese coach manages the Iranian national team, an Argentine the Egyptian team, a Dutchman the Australian team.
The tournament is not so much an exhibition of different national identities as it is a reminder of how casually ideas and tactical fashions in football cross borders. Though soccer spread globally before anyone used the word “globalisation,” it is so much easier in the age of YouTube highlights and viral GIFs on Twitter to study and, more important, love how others play.
Many national teams today reflect decades of migration, the way diaspora has distended the nation. Four out of five African sides, for example, have stocked their rosters with players born in Western European countries like France, Belgium and the Netherlands, where they benefited from better resources and training. More than 60 per cent of the Moroccan team was born outside of Morocco, and some of those players are more comfortable speaking French, Flemish or Dutch than Moroccan Arabic. At the same time, European national teams embody the changing demographics of their countries. Nearly a third of Portugal’s and Switzerland’s squads, for example, were born elsewhere.
The greatest transformation, however, is the way the tournament has become a televised global spectacle, an eventuality King Carol could not have conceived of in 1930. Though the World Cup takes place in a different country every four years, it is experienced everywhere, watched in 2014 by more than 3 billion people (if Fifa’s figures are to be believed). More than half of the nearly $5 billion (Dh18.4 billion) in revenue generated by the 2014 World Cup came from the sale of TV rights. Hundreds of millions of people watched every match, a prospect a long way removed from the first TV transmission of the tournament in 1954, when one semi-final was dropped from the European feed in favour of an agricultural fair in Copenhagen.
Interest in the tournament often has little to do with following your national team. Many World Cup spectators hail from countries that are rarely (if ever) involved. In 2014, nearly a quarter-billion people watched in China, 103 million in Indonesia, 85 million in India. For the doyens of the international game, these populations are lucrative markets for licensing and commercial revenue. But their love for a tournament where they are not represented points to something else altogether. I’m always amazed at how whole streets of Kolkata, India, for instance, become festooned with the colours of beloved South American sides Argentina and Brazil. The World Cup isn’t just a crucible for nation-making, for nations to live out collective dreams and tragedies. It offers a universal theatre, turning national identities into signs of longing for the wider world.
—New York Times News Service
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars, a short story coll
ection, and the presenter of the BBC radio series Museum of Lost Objects.