How the world explains football

The game’s potential was seen at Tehran’s Azadi stadium this week as the local council finally let women into the stands

Writing in July 2014, moments after Germany beat Argentina in Rio de Janeiro to win the football World Cup, the then editor of The New Republic , and author of the acclaimed book, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization , Franklin Foer, sounded notes of an impending disaster. “Vladimir Putin loomed at the center of the Maracanã today,” he wrote. “And in a way, he’s loomed over this whole past month of soccer. Russia will host the next tournament and then Qatar the one after that, and there was always the unspoken sense that this was the last of the great World Cups — a moment of relative innocence before the fall.”

Foer, however, wasn’t the only doomsayer. Many others pointed to the apparently depraved thinking in awarding the World Cup to Russia and, in particular, to Qatar in 2022 as signalling the end of the joie de vivre that the tournament once brought with it. “In four years we’ll be in Russia and it’s hard to imagine that will be much fun,” wrote the Cambridge University professor David Runciman in the London Review of Books.

But now here we are in Russia. And the fun, it appears, has gone nowhere. To the fan, each match has brought with it a certain thrill, and each contest has been imbued with an inner drama, with a narrative that in many of our eyes lends to the World Cup a sense of the ethereal. Take Egypt’s tryst with this year’s tournament. In the lead up to its first match against Uruguay, all the talk surrounded the question of whether its star player Mohammed Salah, who had injured a shoulder while playing the European Champions League final in May, would be fit to start the country’s first World Cup match since 1990. As Salma Islam wrote in The Guardian, Salah’s magic has “transcended the pitch.” He’d managed the impossible, unifying Egyptians of all class and political proclivity — a staggering achievement when one considers the chaos that’s afflicted the country since its 2011 uprising. The country’s ouster from the tournament may devastate its fans’ dreams, but perhaps the World Cup can provide the nation a catharsis that only a sporting loss can deliver.

Potential for change

International football, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote of sport in the early periods of the 20th century, can be an “expression of national conflict, and the sportsmen representing their nation or their state, primarily expressions of their imagined community.” There is more than a kernel of truth to this even today, so much so that a win on the field can occasionally even represent a geopolitical victory of sorts. But football’s potential for change goes further than simple concerns over soft international power, exemplified best perhaps by the protests of a group of Iranian women who unfurled banners in the arena in St. Petersburg during their country’s match against Morocco. They were protesting the ban in Iran on women watching the sport at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. In the months before the World Cup, an all-women reggae band “Abjeez” had even called on Iranian men to lend their support to the movement: “The empty seat by your side is my place. To have me by your side is your right. It’s my right! Consider me a part of you. I am your equal,” the song’s opening lyrics read. The Ayatollah’s diktats have been breached in the past, not always bringing with it tangible change. But this time Tehran’s local council granted permission to women to enter the Azadi Stadium to watch Iran’s second match in the tournament, against Spain, albeit on a giant TV screen. We cannot yet be sure whether this will herald a larger change, but sport, and football in particular, certainly serve as a special engine for social movement in Iran.

Why it means so much

The World Cup matters, as Musa Okwonga wrote in The New York Times , because it’s not just about football but about everything, about “politics, economics, social issues,” about “race and class and history” and “about corruption and nationalism, fear and joy.” But it also matters because it is about football. At its heart the sport represents a thing of pure beauty. The Canadian philosopher Bernard Suits aptly defined games as a “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” In football, these obstacles are especially arduous. When a great goal is scored, therefore, it resonates almost mythically with us. This grace inherent at the core of the sport has been typified no better recently than in Portugal’s draw last week against Spain, in a match that involved a clash of two contrasting styles, between Spain’s clever and dazzling patterns of passing and movement and Portugal’s counter-attacking approach, relying heavily on its virtuoso footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.

In the final minute of the match, with Portugal trailing 2-3, Ronaldo won himself a free kick at the edge of the box. What followed was a familiar routine: “When Cristiano poses for a free kick, he readies himself by taking those few theatrical paces back — signalling to all that something special is about to happen,” Mexican journalist Juan Villoro wrote in 2016. “And then he stands, legs astride resembling a statute of himself. It’s a pose Apollo might have pulled off, had he simply practised more.” But on 44 previous occasions spread over three past World Cups Ronaldo’s efforts at scoring directly from a free kick had come a cropper. Yet, here, on a hat trick, there seemed an unerring inevitability about the result and, sure enough, within moments of taking his position, he curled the ball past the wall set by Spain’s goalkeeper David De Gea into the back of the net. An un-saveable shot if ever there was one. It was a moment of such sublime brilliance and skill that, at the instant when it happened, it unravelled the game for us, purging it of all its ugliness.

Now, not everyone finds Ronaldo especially likeable. When he enters a football pitch he seems to indulge in his own project of ostentation. He gives us an impression that the game merely exists to serve his greatness. Yet, for many of us fans the virtues of his genius invariably tend to veil his narcissism. At the centre of celebrating Ronaldo there lies, therefore, an absurdity, perhaps not dissimilar to the paradox of celebrating the World Cup: that it is possible for beauty to exist within structures that we might otherwise find indecorous or even unpardonable.

Everything's possible

There’s little question that professional football does everything possible, as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano put it, to “castrate the energy of happiness, but it survives in spite of all the spites.” Russia isn’t going to be the end of the fun, and indeed neither is Qatar. When America hosts the World Cup in 2026 (curiously, we’ve seen little questioning of the U.S.’s own appalling human rights record) together with Canada and Mexico, the football will remain as alluring as ever. But it must still matter to us now that FIFA is a hugely corrupt organisation, that while its leadership has changed hands its wicked culture has remained unaltered. If we want to elevate football into something beyond the merely beautiful, to something truly transcendent, we’ll have to help rid the game of the many evils wrought by its present administrators.

Suhrith Parthasarthy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court

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