13 Jul

A Theory about my World Cup Watching

Here’s something that occurred to me a few weeks ago: All else being equal, if I lived outside of the US, I might not love the World Cup as much as I do.

I recently read about some of Jorge Luis Borges’ opinions on soccer; he didn’t like it. According to Shaj Mathew, writing at New Republic, Borges’ “problem was with soccer fan culture, which he linked to the kind of blind popular support that propped up the leaders of the twentieth century’s most horrifying political movements.” Borges was an Argentinian, who witnessed firsthand the Dirty War and the rise of a fascist government—horrifying political movements—so it makes sense that “he was naturally suspicious of his countrymen’s unqualified devotion to any doctrine or religion.” He feared that nationalism seems to go hand in hand with soccer. “Nationalism only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity.” I just want to pause and digest this last comment. Nationalism only allows for affirmations; you’re either with us or against us; love it or leave it.

Franklin Foer uses the term tribalism instead of Nationalism, but he illuminates exactly what freaked Borges out when he describes how in the “2002 World Cup [held in South Korea], there was a deadly riot in Bangladesh between fans of Argentina and fans of Brazil.” Or how “support for Rangers [over the Celtics in Glasgow, Scotland] has become a means for venting a sort of lingering Catholic hatred.” (Apparently, fans have adopted the Rangers as the Protestant team, and even wear orange despite the team’s colors being blue, white, and red.)

Indeed, soccer somewhat regularly brings out the worst kind of us vs. them mentality. A really great example of the nationalism inherent in soccer comes from Diego Maradona’s description of Argentina’s victory over England in the 1986 World Cup. In 1982, there was a brief 10-week war between the UK and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina. Four years later, the Argentine team beat England in the World Cup in Mexico. Maradona writes in his autobiography, “It was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team. Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”

I could give a lot more examples, but suffice to say soccer is prone to disturbing tribalism. So I think Borges has a point.

And yet, there’s something pretty appealing about that level of passion and belonging. When I lived in Ecuador, we were drawn into the soccer fervor a little. When they beat Argentina, all of Quito erupted into ecstatic celebration. I remember watching the game at a restaurant and seeing a guy jump up at a near-goal moment and shout “Fuera Lucio,” a reference to the very recent ousting of corrupt president Lucio Gutierrez. It was a joke, but still, the link between pride in the national team and pride in the citizenry’s patriotic ouster of an asshole made a lot of sense. And it felt genuinely patriotic. In fact, one thing I noticed when living in Ecuador was that people there were very aware that the government did not necessarily represent the citizenry—hence, despite the widespread unpopularity of Bush, who was the US president at the time, Ecuadorians did not look at me as a de facto supporter of him. They didn’t judge people by their political leaders. Consequently, they seemed to have a strong sense of what ties them all together, and that bond exists quite apart from politics, or rather in spite of politics. On a regular basis, I heard the term “La Patria” thrown around. It means homeland, fatherland, and is rooted not in politics but in heritage.

I have to admit that back here in the states, I’m soured on the term patriotism because it has been so co-opted by those with political motives. It’s oft-referenced by knee-jerk “love it or leave it!” types or by politicians looking to gain an emotional foothold among those who remember when patriotism meant something other than supporting the Patriot Act.

And my level of tribalism/patriotism/nationalism has, at least in the majority of my adult years, been mitigated by an awareness that nationalism is kind of dumb. I mean, in this country, we all came from somewhere else (footnote 1), and relocating to other parts of the country is so common, at least amongst the educated classes of the Midwest, that we almost all recognize the absurdity of regionalism, the cousin of tribalism and nationalism (I have very good friends in Seattle, Portland, Denver, NYC, Alaska, Minnesota, and Boston).

So I take our nationalism with a grain of salt.

Actually, maybe it’s worth distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism. If Nationalism is a relatively unquestioning support of the political state, especially as it compares to other political states, then patriotism is merely a love of one’s own homeland and doesn’t necessarily equate to a blind, untested preference over other people’s homelands or to any real competitive or comparative m.o.

For me personally, I find it very easy to have little stake in the winner or loser of the World Cup. The US is never a contender. And in some ways, that assuages the potential for tribal identification or a competitive/comparative nationalism. I get to watch and root for other nations. And if/when I have less stake in who wins, my spectating becomes a matter of appreciating the athleticism on display and the story that develops over the course of the 90- or 120-minute game, rather than personal identification with the struggles of my people.

In other words, soccer is decidedly not tribalist for me. And I think that has a lot to do with my being an American.

Watching soccer feels foreign, worldly, like vacationing in Europe. In fact, it reminds me of watching the European championship when my wife and I honeymooned in Ireland. And coincidentally, just as I was in the midst of writing down these thoughts, I came upon an article in the most recent Harper’s magazine written by a guy named Simon Kuper, author of Soccernomics, who says, “Soccer—especially European soccer—makes American fans feel like cosmopolitans.” He goes on to say that American soccer fans “tend to be Democrats, even though sports fans overall lean Republican.” That jibes pretty well with the very unscientific observations I’ve noted on Facebook.

My theory is this: because my consumption of the sport is based not on fanaticism and tribalism or other political subtexts, I am both free of some constraints that might otherwise determine my preferences and ignorant of some information that might otherwise deepen my attachments. I’m a tourist. I’m a visitor. I vacation in the country, love it, and leave with my good memories intact. Were I, like Borges, to live in soccer-land, I’m not sure I would like it as much. It just might reek of politics a little too much.

(footnote 1: except for Native Americans, who are among the most impoverished and historically trod-upon groups in this country. And in fact, it’s sort of “patriotic” to celebrate the revisionary history in which European settlers sat down to feast with the Native Americans, which just goes to show the very shaky foundations upon which American patriotism is built.)

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