In the first of R&K’s World Cup dispatches with Sports Illustrated, Laurent Dubois talks about the global theater of soccer.


There are two moments from my time in the stadia of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa that I remember particularly vividly. One of them I couldn’t take my eyes off. The other I couldn’t watch.

I was in FNB Stadium for the final between Spain and the Netherlands. It was a grueling game, the frustration and ugliness seeping across the turf as the minutes ticked by. Oddly enough, though they are always riveting spectacles, many World Cup finals are actually pretty disappointing as soccer. Often the best games are in the quarterfinals, or even earlier in the tournament. Watching that final on TV seems to have been particularly frustrating. In the stadium, though, there was something wonderful about being collectively enraged. We could yell, stomp, hold our heads in our hands, and it felt like the Dutch players, the poor referee Howard Webb, and even the heavens above could hear us. And then: Andrés Iniesta broke through and scored the winning goal, clinching the World Cup for Spain. I’ve never felt anything quite like that in a crowd: a mass sense of release and relief, a euphoria beyond measure. It was over. And we had seen it. It had happened before our very eyes.

The World Cup is the largest theater that has ever existed in human history.

All night, walking around, I had seen a weird smile on the faces of people from all over the world, from El Salvador and Haiti and Ireland and, of course, from the U.S.—we were, after all, the largest group of foreigners in South Africa. It was a slightly stupid grin that said: “I can’t believe I’m actually at the final of the World Cup.” It was a bit surreal, almost too much, to know that in that moment we were truly at the center of the world.

The World Cup is the largest theater that has ever existed in human history. More people watched the 2010 final than had ever watched anything else before. While the Olympics provide something similar, its scattered structure simply can’t produce what the World Cup does: a powerful month-long narrative, in which all those who watch and participate largely follow one plot line. The features of football itself guarantee a powerful drama that invariably includes heroism, tragedy, total unfairness, massive blunders by referees, and an exhausting yo-yo between utterly tedious and totally exhilarating play.

If you take a step back from it for a moment, our obsession with the World Cup is truly bizarre, even totally irrational. Soccer is, like all games, made up of a rather odd and haphazard set of rules. Nineteenth century English teachers and students developed them, and eventually the rules of what became known as Association Football were codified with the 1863 Cambridge Rules. (One theory for the origin of the word “soccer” is that it is a deformation of “Association.”) But three very different games—rugby, soccer, and that global oddity American football all came out of roughly the same original soup, which is a reminder of how random the process of rule-making can be.

Soccer had a remarkable capacity to become indigenous nearly everywhere it took root.

But the unique and somewhat mysterious thing about soccer, among the world’s sports, is how rapidly it spread. Other games often remained roughly contained within imperial boundaries—cricket is the most obvious example—but soccer didn’t. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was being played in Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and throughout much of Africa. Though invented in the rather peculiar context of English schools, the sport has also shown a remarkable capacity to become indigenous nearly everywhere it took root. Played in Senegal, it seems as completely Senegalese as any other form of local culture. Soccer is absolutely German. It is absolutely Argentinian. It is absolutely Haitian. And of course it is, perhaps above all, absolutely Brazilian. In fact, the English often have to remind the rest of us that they were the ones who invented it—a reminder that is often brushed off with a yawn and a “yes, we know.” As perpetually beleaguered English fans know, when it comes to global competition at least, having invented the game doesn’t seem to give them any particular advantage.

Photo by: Gustavo Minas

The World Cup was dreamed up in Europe in the years after World War I. The man who created it, the Frenchman Jules Rimet, is surprisingly little known. He was like many of us: he didn’t play soccer particularly well, but he loved it. Indeed, he believed in soccer with a quiet, quasi-religious fervor. He was of the generation that had gone through World War I, a conflict that left a monument in every French town with a list of the young men who died in the trenches. There’s a picture of him, in fact, standing dandily in the trenches as a commander of what are probably a group of African-American soldiers. Though it sent black troops to the European front in 1917, the U.S. army was so intent on maintaining segregation that they incorporated them into the French army, placing white French officers in charge of the units. They even issued orders insisting that these French officers not fraternize unduly with their black soldiers. From the picture, at least, it seems Rimet refused to follow that command.

Rimet’s dream: rather than war, nations can instead compete on the pitch.

Though it had already spread rapidly in the late nineteenth century, soccer was helped along mightily by World War I. Soldiers from colonial empires were brought to Europe to fight, and some learned to play the game during the moments of leisure they had. Algerians who fought as colonial troops for France returned from the front with soccer balls. Many Europeans from rural areas, who had never played before, went home as converts to the game. For his part, Jules Rimet came home with a dream: that rather than sending their young to gun each other down with machine guns and stabbing each other with bayonets, nations might instead compete on the pitch. They could celebrate their pride and difference while also sharing a set of rules and what he considered to be the most universal language on the planet: soccer.

Games evoke war: there are the banners and flags, sometimes the ugliness and xenophobia and dehumanization of opposing sides, and of course the physical clash between two groups of uniformed men. But games are not war. Rules—even when they are applied with blatant and infuriating unfairness, as they often are in soccer—are largely followed. Opposing sides shake hands, at least most of the time, and often even share affectionate words and hugs at the end of even furiously contested games. Most importantly, people usually don’t die.

When we’re not fighting a war, these nations of ours are often rather abstract things. We participate in elections if we are lucky enough to be able to. We learn our nation’s history in school. We fly a flag sometimes, or sing an anthem. But nothing provides us a direct and tactile representation of the nation the way an athletic team taking to the field in its colors do. And rarely, too, do we get to see the fates of nations worked out so clearly and vividly. One action by one player can change everything in a World Cup. There it can seem like the point of entire lives, entire histories, was to lead to the moment when a player scores a goal and wins a game. There is Diego Maradona’s road from a shantytown outside Buenos Aires to the moment when he used his hand, and then his foot, to defeat England in the 1986 World Cup. Or Zinedine Zidane’s road from his parents’ colonial-era migration to France to the concrete plaza in his Marseille projects, where he played all day long but never liked to head the ball, to the moment when he scored two headers against Brazil to win France its first World Cup in 1998. In those instants, a nation and an individual seem to merge. Maradona becomes Argentina, and all Argentinians; Zidane becomes France, and all the French. That crossroads between a player, a moment, fans, and a nation is what makes the World Cup into the unforgettable global spectacle it has become.

Soccer is also one of the most effective tools for mass human torture ever devised.

Of course such moments are exceedingly rare and evanescent. They come at a cost. There are plenty of tedious games. And then there are those whose outcomes (at least to the losing side) can be disappointing, if not traumatic. An entire generation of Brazilians might well describe the 1950 loss to Uruguay in the World Cup final as basically the worst thing that happened in their country in the 20th century. A generation of French fans who lived through the grueling semi-final defeat to Germany in 1982, can still recount that night in vivid, bitter detail, especially the moment when the German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher smashed into French defender Patrick Battiston and left him comatose, yet received no sanction from the referee at all.

For me, and for many others, that traumatic moment came in 2010 with the Ghana-Uruguay game. Watching that game convinced me that, among other things, soccer is one of the most effective tools for mass human torture ever devised. A vast majority of the eighty thousand or so fans in the stadium that night, plus millions of viewers throughout the world, were left speechless and unwound.

The night began with an atmosphere of near-certainty about Ghana’s victory. The symbolism was perfect. A half century earlier, Ghana was the country that launched the great wave of decolonization in Africa. In 1966 Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah led a boycott of the World Cup, unhappy with FIFA’s policies, which at the time gave no guaranteed berths to African, Asian, North and Central American, or Caribbean teams. The successful boycott represented the beginning of a long process that earned African countries more power in FIFA and culminated in the selection of South Africa for the 2010 competition. For Ghana to be the first African country to get to the semi-finals of the World Cup, surpassing Senegal’s legendary 2002 run, would have been a fitting and inspiring confirmation that things had changed and could change even more in the world of football.

I’ve never been at a game saturated with such tense hope and energy.

Nearly everyone in the stadium was a Ghanaian that night. The team had been adopted by South Africans, whose dear Bafana Bafana had been eliminated in the first round. They called the Ghanaians BaGhana BaGhana. As we streamed towards Soccer City, people bought Ghana scarves and Ghana hats and Ghana shirts, got the colors of the Ghanaian flag painted on their faces. Inside the stadium, the buzz and crow of vuvuzelas urged the Black Stars on to victory. I’ve never been at a game saturated with such tense hope and energy.

They lost. I can’t bear to recount the story, and I can’t even describe to you what it was like watching it, because I didn’t watch it, at least not at the end. After Luis Suarez blocked a certain goal with his hand, and Asamoah Gyan missed his last minute penalty kick—which would have sent Ghana to the semi-finals—the game went to a penalty shoot-out. I held my head between my hands for the entire time, somehow knowing in my heart what was likely to happen. I could tell each time a penalty was scored by Ghana from the ear-shattering cheers, and each time one was made by Uruguay by the groans around me. And I could tell when it was all over by the dead, sickening, sad silence spreading out, peppered by the cheers of the vastly outnumbered Uruguayan supporters.

Besides the sufferings of football fans and the kind of enraging, irreparable injustice on the field I witnessed that night, the World Cup comes with other more serious costs. In the 21st century, the outlay of capital and investment associated with hosting a World Cup has become astronomical. And when, as in the case of South Africa in 2010 and Brazil and 2014, such sporting events take place in countries where the problem of infrastructure, poverty and urban geography are at issue, the result can be explosive.

FIFA had at once become truly international and, in a new sense, truly political.

It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when FIFA was a cute little organization based in Geneva whose job was to organize a football tournament every few years. Doing so meant writing letters to various football associations around the world and making arrangements with local hosts. They didn’t spend much money, and they didn’t make much money. All that changed drastically under the presidency of João Havelange. A Brazilian, and the first non-European head of FIFA, Havelange presided over a remarkable expansion in FIFA’s range and power. He did so in part by cultivating links with the large bloc of new members of the organization made up of recently independent African nations. For these countries, joining FIFA was about as important as joining the United Nations as a way of demonstrating their existence on the world stage. Havelange won his election to FIFA presidency in part by getting the African nations to vote for him, and in return promised that his organization would provide support for the development of local federations and their infrastructure. The African bloc demonstrated its power in the 1960s and again in the 1980s by successfully getting apartheid South Africa kicked out of FIFA unless they agreed to send racially integrated teams to the World Cup. FIFA had at once become truly international and, in a new sense, truly political.

During the same decades, FIFA got access to huge new streams of money by charging more and more for television rights for the competitions they organized. The change in FIFA was part of a global change in sports culture, one in which the main revenue for teams became not selling tickets to local fans but selling broadcasting rights. The increasing privatization of television stations in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s created bigger revenue streams. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi managed to bring together the power of TV, football, and politics in a way that transformed his country’s institutions and culture. In some ways, FIFA has done the same on a global scale, becoming the odd Frankenstein’s monster of an organization it is today. It is part international organization, with more members than the U.N., as its spokesmen often proudly tell us, thanks to the membership of places like Palestine, New Caledonia, and Wales. But it is also a corporation governing large amounts of cash. And, beyond that, it has became a kind of supra-national government, one with the power to actually push around national governments, and indeed force them to concede forms of legal and geographical sovereignty in return for the right to host a World Cup.

The deal FIFA makes with host countries is basically that they pay for everything that needs to be built for the tournament with their own tax dollars. FIFA, furthermore, has a stringent set of requirements about the way stadia are constructed: they make most of the rules. In return, the country gets to host the World Cup. FIFA’s overbearing approach to the organization of the World Cup was not as much of an issue when it was held in places countries like the U.S., France, South Korea/Japan, and Germany, where the athletics and transportation infrastructure was already quite solid. Even in those countries there were controversies surrounding the taxpayer subsidized construction of new stadia, such as the Stade de France for the 1998 World Cup in Paris. Leading up to the tournament, many of the French people had complained bitterly about the inconveniences of the event, though a few weeks later they were all in the streets, victorious belting out the Marseillaise and hugging random passersby in a mass celebration of the kind not seen since the 1944 liberation of Paris from the Germans.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa, however, engendered a new level of antagonism from the local populace. Large amounts of state funds flowed into the construction of new stadiums, and corruption followed. The draconian limits placed by FIFA on the ability of local street merchants to profit from the World Cup also raised hackles. FIFA claimed then, and still claims, exclusive rights to pretty much any symbol linked to the World Cup—including things like “Brazil 2014” or even a soccer ball—though in South Africa at least they eventually allowed merchants to sell goods outside the fenced perimeter of the stadium. And, since it turns out that what most fans on the way to a game really want are either national flags or scarves and hats with national symbols on them, so that they can adopt a nation for the night, there was plenty for merchants to sell. FIFA doesn’t yet claim the right to own nations, or their symbols.

Never before has a World Cup actually been the occasion for a mass protest movement. That may happen next summer.

As the intense protests surrounding the Confederations Cup in Brazil this summer showed, however, FIFA may ultimately find itself confronting more and more serious challenges. Many World Cups have had powerful political implications, whether in the form of dictatorships using the event to shore up their regimes, as in Italy in 1934 and Argentina in 1978, the mass celebrations in France in 1998 that promoted the idea that the multi-ethnic national team was a symbol of a new, more tolerant social order, or the embrace of long-shunned national symbols in Germany in 2006. But never before has a World Cup actually been the occasion for a mass protest movement. That may happen next summer.

Partly this is because FIFA could have met its match in Brazil. The organization acts at times as if it owns global soccer. But if there is any country in the world that owns the game, it is Brazil. No one can accuse them of not respecting the importance of soccer. Instead, a number of Brazilians have accused FIFA—in cahoots with local elites and a corrupt national football federation—of attempting to monopolize, even steal, what makes the game beautiful in the first place. The World Cup in Brazil is an ideal opportunity for a conflict over the very meaning of what sport should be.

It is of course always dangerous to predict what will happen. It could be that the protests of this past summer won’t be repeated, that pressure from FIFA will push the Brazilian government to even greater heights of security surrounding the stadia in order to close off any avenues for protest. But neither the Brazilian government or FIFA can control how the Brazilian population decides to react. And if a true social movement begins it won’t be simple to contain. Indeed, the nightmare for FIFA may ultimately be the spectacle of its carefully choreographed tournament ending up looking like a form of ultimate hypocrisy, with stadia surrounded by tanks and guns, tear gas wafting outside, and all the claims that they celebrate joy, diversity and understanding looking particularly absurd. The 2014 competition might become an opportunity for fans and citizens to really consider whether they can stand the extent to which this game, which after all exists only thanks to those who watch and love it, has been hijacked by those with money and power. It might be a moment to ponder, as protestors in Brazil this past summer demanded, whether it makes sense to spend so much money on the sport rather than education or useful transportation for a nation’s citizens.

We should remember that the game exists for us and because of us.

What are soccer fans to do in the face of all that this sport we love throws at us? How should we deal with the corruption, the absurdity of putting so much stock into a game, the mad unfairness of so many matches, the fact that a true fan is almost sure at some point to have their heart ripped out? One could swear off soccer forever, something I’ve been tempted to do more than once. One can try to put things into perspective, but then one is led back to the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s line: “’Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

The solution I’ve found, for now, is a double one. As soccer fans, we should also be citizens, critics of the way that teams and tournaments and national federations and the global behemoth that is FIFA are run. We should remember that, in the end, the game exists for us and because of us, and that we have the right to demand that it be carried out with ethics and for the greater good, as the World Cup founder Jules Rimet believed it could and should be. Personally, as a fan, I keep the faith by holding onto to moments like the ten minutes in the Ghana vs Uruguay match during which the Black Stars led by a single goal, when there was an elevated buzz of hope in the stadium, a time when we could imagine what it would be like to be there when an African team made it through to the semifinal of the World Cup for the first time in history. In 2014 we will, once again, go like pilgrims to the World Cup because we know that, against all odds, there will be evanescent moments like that one, moments that crystallize hope and community, moments that are all too rare in this world.

[Top photo credit: Nathan O’Nions]