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Joy and Loathing at the World Cup

Once every four years, a month of summer is set aside by one of the world’s most bloated and corrupt sporting bureaucracies to pit national team against national team to determine the country able to field the best collection of players of the most popular sport on the globe. The cost is enormous, jingoistic nationalism and offensive stereotypes are given full voice, the American media establishment sniffs in glib imperialist disapproval, and some occasionally pretty spectacular football is played. Millions – billions – watch in rapt attention the world over, even in mostly unconverted North America, where immigrant heritage emblazons temporary noisy loyalty to faraway athletes wearing national colours. It’s at once a glorious display and the ultimate guilty pleasure, the discriminatory assumptions of the worldwide economic order marking the event even more strongly than, say, the Olympics.

And yet this contradictory nature, the World Cup’s comfort and delight coexisting with its stark illustration of international socioeconomic gulfs and intra-national mistrust and prejudice, is what makes the event so appealing and even cathartic. As a large-scale, highly-corporatized major sporting event, the World Cup is necessarily compromised by commercialization and sponsorship, to say nothing of the darker, murkier side of backroom dealings, match-fixing and illegal bribery that continues to dog high-level football. The hubristic greed and cluelessness of FIFA, as embodied by its evident shameless President Sepp Blatter of Switzerland, has 2014FIFAWorldCupgathered into a perfect storm not around the current World Cup in Brazil but the 2022 edition, granted to the tiny Persian Gulf petro-emirate of Qatar. Qatar’s World Cup, though still eight years off, has been jeopardized by allegations of bribery, reports of thousands of migrant worker deaths in the construction of the facilities for the tournament, and concerns about player health and safety in the scorching daytime desert heat and about visitor freedom and security in a Muslim state where alcohol, homosexuality, and many women’s rights are strictly forbidden. Moving the World Cup to winter has been discussed (though this would seriously disrupt the intricately-scheduled domestic league season across the game’s upper echelons in Europe), and FIFA Executive Committee members have even suggested that a vote may be taken to strip host Qatar of the competition altogether.

Current host Brazil, one of the most football-mad nations on the planet whose national team’s iconic successes (and failures) are an inextricable part of the country’s image and character, has not been immune to similar intrusions of real-world problems into the impeccable sports fantasy of the World Cup. Protests have riven the country over the government spending on the event, with inquiries and disclosures into the nature and amount of funds spent supported by the legendary striker Romário. Brazil has a long history of misuse of public funds, like many developing nations where socioeconomic gaps remain considerable, and such suspicion is usually richly merited.

This tension, along with the obvious, glaring problems with the Qatar bid that appear to have been swept aside by avalanches of cash, illustrate the animating contradictions of a sport run by a wealthy elite but whose grassroots appeal reaches deep into the poorer quarters of the globe for both its on-field talent and off-field enthusiasts. Just as football has often staged international conflicts (England vs. Argentina) and sectarian divisions (“Protestant” Rangers vs. “Catholic” Celtic) as safe, non-warlike athletic spectacle, it likewise stages its fundamental socioeconomic disparities as object lessons of larger forces at work on the economics of the sport.

What continues to amaze about the World Cup, however, is how all of these concerns drop away when the ball is kicked off and the world’s greatest footballers contest its greatest prize. The 2014 World Cup has already proven rich and exciting, with close games won in the late stages and a flood of goals, many of them quite magnificent. The central dramatic storyline of the tournament – whether host Brazil can win the World Cup on home soil after falling agonizingly, traumatically short when the nation last hosted the tournament in 1950 – has some compelling historical heft, and the history of the game does often privilege larger-than-life narratives. But football is, above all, an aesthetic experience unlike any other sport, and the World Cup, with its visual background of chanting fans in national colours and foreground of amazing athletic feats, is its quadrennial masterpiece, painted in full motion. Glory and triumph of the victors aside, this kaleidoscopic display of national distinctions and enduring commonality beyond all political, social, and cultural divisions is the fleeting shot of joy that the World Cup offers a wearied post-capitalist, post-imperial, post-colonial global village. The World Cup is as beautiful as it is ugly. How like life.

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