Without my grandfather, it is easy to imagine a gulf between the football of his century and that of mine. The World Cup, as the sociologist David Goldblatt suggested, “is the greatest regular opportunity for the peoples of the world to look at each other, however bizarre the lens of football makes us appear.” The mythology of the tournament in the last century is bound up in the redemption of brittle men and their precarious countries. It would be presumptuous to imagine that my grandfather saw the same thing, or saw himself in it. For my part, however, I am beginning to see this tournament as an accurate reflection of the world many of us now come from. It is neon-lit, aspirational, and capable of miracles. And yet, to borrow the metaphor from Walter Benjamin, there is a storm driving us backwards into the future; as we go, we are facing the rubble of the past, growing sky-high in front of us.
Who,before 2010, had ever heard the North Korean national anthem outside shouting distance of that country?
Unlike the Olympics, the World Cup was not the brainchild of dreamy aristocrats aiming to resurrect the classical world. Its site was not the city, but the haunted house of the modern nation-state, a fragile, volatile and, for footballing purposes, oddly obliging entity. Over the years, the politics of protest flared up at the Olympics, in acts of defiance, in participation and in withdrawal. The tournament boycotted, and was boycotted in turn, as players and nations used it as a platform from which to declare and debate the question of whether they wished to be part of a comity.
At the World Cup, these questions were largely already answered, and the answer was almost always “Yes.” For example: “Yes, we want you, North Korea.” Who, before 2010, had ever heard the North Korean national anthem outside shouting distance of that country? Perhaps those who had seen the team last in the 1966 World Cup; certainly not the few million who did on that night four years ago as the team played their opening game against no less a behemoth than Brazil (and lost 2-1, an astonishing scoreline). At the World Cup, there are few pariahs.
FIFA, the governor of football, is essentially a mercantile body
This spirit of accommodation may have something to do with the fact that FIFA, the governor of football, is essentially a mercantile body. A brisk approach to business informed its philosophy of inclusiveness. (The last serious boycott of the World Cup occurred in France 1938: it appears to have been the consequence of a bureaucratic tussle over who got to host the tournament.) In the decades following the Second World War, the Cold War seemed largely absent from the Mundial’s battlefields. Perhaps this was because neither the USA, which had grown indifferent to soccer, nor the USSR, which had come to love it, jockeyed here for power. The great movements for independence and human rights which took place in many African nations after 1950 were also rendered more or less invisible; teams from sub-Saharan Africa had no visibility on the world stage until Zaire qualified in 1974, and it was some years before African teams were able to compete with the established powers of Europe and Latin America.