It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the FIFA World Cup, which on June 12 kicked off its 20th tournament, this time in Brazil. Every four years this event captures the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of soccer fans around the globe. And like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, flags and national anthems align the masses behind their countries’ respective teams.
As in the Olympic Games, the athletes’ individual names and surnames will give way to national affiliations. No longer will the individual player who won the medal, dribbling the ball skillfully down the field or scoring the winning goal, get his due credit. Instead, a collectivist mindset will co-opt the victory by celebrating, not the achievement of talented individuals, but the reflected glory of a winning team’s home country.
Don’t mistake me for an enemy of soccer; I’m not. I believe that most of the time it’s a healthy and fun pastime. But when it triggers primitive, nationalistic feelings, an ugly side emerges.
The World Cup often unfolds more like a battle than a game. Thirty-two national teams fight it out on the playing field using high centering passes and penalties in place of mortars and missiles. The enemy is: a different country, a different language, a different set of customs, a different group of people with a different look. It is exactly the same mentality that erects border fences and requires mandatory passports.
And yet, this nationalism does not reflect the make-up of the teams. In Brazil this year, 14 of the 32 teams competing in the World Cup are led by coaches with a national origin different from that of their athletes. The United States, Switzerland, Croatia, and Cameroon have German coaches. The Russian and Japanese teams are coached by Italians. Honduras, Ecuador, and Costa Rica are in the hands of Colombians.
What is more relevant: their current country of residence, or the one on their birth certificates?
Here’s another fact for soccer nationalists to consider: Most of the World Cup athletes born in developing countries are scattered among the European teams — an astounding 76 percent of them play in Europe. And there are cases like Bosnia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Uruguay in which only 4.3 percent of the athletes — that is, only one of a team’s 23 players — was born in that country.
Prior to a World Cup kick-off, teams often scramble quickly to recruit foreign athletes to their teams and expedite their visas. For instance, Pepe was born in Brazil but now plays for Portugal; Diego Costa, also Brazilian, is a naturalized Spaniard and will play for Spain; Fernando Muslera, the Uruguayan goalkeeper, was born in Argentina; and Kevin Prince Boateng is German but will play for Ghana.
I once witnessed the absurd anguish of an immigrant in front of a TV set, watching the team from his country of origin play the team of his adopted land. He feared that showing support for one but not the other would be viewed as an act of treason by his relatives, friends, and neighbors. He might as well have been taking up arms and fighting for a wartime enemy, as far as they were concerned.
On several occasions, governments have offered attractive prizes and perks to members of their national teams, just as if they were brigades of mercenaries, to motivate them to perform better during the World Cup. Also, unscrupulous politicians have used and manipulated the games to ensure that their corruption can continue after the haze of the games has lifted.
In the past few years the soccer market has spontaneously leveled out, as it were, and become fairly homogenous worldwide — sort of like the way that prices for similar products tend to converge when obstacles to international trade are lifted. The differences in the way that athletes train and perform have become blurred almost to the point of being imperceptible.
Let us hope that someday this awesome sport will rid itself of nationalistic connotations that go beyond a spectacle in which 23 very well-paid professionals face each other for 90 minutes on a verdant playing field. Let us hope the day comes when these amazing athletes are cheered not because they share the accident called birth that establishes their nationality, but because of talents they have developed and choices they and team owners have made together. And let us hope fans will one day understand that soccer is simply a game.
For the time being, though, let the best team win!