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How the World Cup reflects the world

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 14/06/2018 Ishaan Tharoor

Ramzan Kadyrov, Mohamed Salah posing for the camera © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post

"Time is that irritating inconvenience between soccer matches." That's an almost-certainly apocryphal line, usually attributed to the French-Algerian philosopher — and handy schoolboy goalkeeper — Albert Camus. But whatever its provenance, it rings true as the World Cup gets underway in Russia.

No event commands as large and as rapt an audience as this tournament of 32 national soccer (yes, friends abroad, The Washington Post mandates that I must write "soccer") teams. And there's no single event that so dramatically captures the global imagination. For the next month, across the planet, interest in non-World Cup happenings will dry up, office-goers will skip work, politicians will don and hide behind the national shirt, and time will stand still — at least for 90 minutes at a go.

In an earlier era, the World Cup served as a kind of meeting ground of alien cultures and rival nations. British journalist Tim Vickery, now a Brazil-based expert on South American soccer, described how seeing a simple sticker of Peruvian player Ramon Mifflin ahead of the 1970 tournament fired the curiosity of a 5-year-old growing up in the London suburbs.

"I had no album to stick it in, but that image always stuck in my mind," noted Vickery, evoking the athlete's striking portrait, his high cheekbones and the elegant red sash of the Peruvian jersey, all set against an Andean backdrop. "That picture from Peru symbolized everything that was exotic and fascinating about international football."

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Now, though, the World Cup is no longer some exotic display of the foreign as much an expression of an increasingly shared global experience. In the 21st century, the sport's top stars all feature in the same money-soaked clubs, appear in the same globally-marketed video games and pop up in each other's Instagram feeds. Young fans may not fancy the Peru squad appearing in this year's tournament, but they probably know them.

For much of the viewing public, national teams now play second fiddle to the popular professional leagues that have carved out lucrative audiences around the world. Kenyans or Indians often feel as much loyalty to a team in Manchester as any Mancunian, and likely more than they feel for any of the far poorer clubs at home.

And the character of the national teams themselves often reflects a reality that transcends the nation-state. France, one of the tournament favorites, has drawn the bulk of its strength from its minority and immigrant communities, linked to the wide sweep of the French postcolonial world. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of the Moroccan team was born in Europe.

"The tournament is not so much an exhibition of different national identities as it is a reminder of how casually ideas and tactical fashions in football cross borders," wrote my twin brother, Kanishk Tharoor, for the New York Times.

At a time when populists champion a nationalist future, the World Cup can deliver a snapshot of a world at ease in its pluralism. "The success of this festival of nations relies a great deal on energies that cross borders and remove people from their national roots," Kanishk wrote. "It suggests that there is actually a false dichotomy between 'globalism' and 'nativism.' In both soccer and life, it is perfectly possible to be a proud representative of your nation while being helplessly, incurably global."

A perfect example is Mohammed Salah, Egypt's talismanic winger. He is hugely popular in Egypt, where more than a million people cast write-in votes for him in this year's sham presidential election, possibly making him the runner-up. But as the leading light of Liverpool FC in northwest England, his exploits have won him adulation across the Arab world and led English fans to serenade his religion. Salah is "a player that has become a unifying global force in an increasingly fractured world," wrote Afshin Molavi for The Post.

Yet Salah has also become another pawn in the power politics shadowing the global game. Images of him posing with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a controversial former warlord making a propaganda play to the Muslim world, have sparked an international backlash.

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As much as soccer — and the World Cup, in particular — can unite, it also serves as a constant reminder of inequity, corruption and abuses of power. Since the last World Cup in Brazil, FIFA, the sport's governing body, has faced an inquisition into its murky dealings and the apparent greed of its top executives — though it's not clear if any lessons have been learned.

Geopolitics also hover over proceedings. Before their two countries kick off the tournament on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman are said to be discussing a lucrative oil deal. The stigma of Putin's rule, the past violent deeds of Russian soccer hooligans and endemic racism in the country all dimmed the excitement for many outsiders ahead of the World Cup.

Iran is no longer getting its cleats supplied from Nike as the U.S. company fears the resumption of sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Argentina arrived in Russia on the back of a diplomatic firestorm after canceling a warmup match with Israel, apparently as an act of protest against the treatment of Palestinians. And as President Trump rejects multilateralism and squabbles with American allies, the United States conveniently managed to not even qualify for the tournament.

But whatever clouds loom over the World Cup, they may be dispelled by the joy and hope of those who love it.

"The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, soccer continues to be the art of the unforeseeable," wrote Eduardo Galeano, the late Uruguayan author and public intellectual. "When you least expect it, the impossible occurs, the dwarf teaches the giant a lesson, and a runty, bowlegged black man makes an athlete sculpted in Greece look ridiculous."

Camus is more credibly linked to another famous line on the sport, referring to his time in net for a team in Algiers: "Everything I know about morality and the duty of man," he said, "I owe it" to soccer. For good and bad, let the games begin.


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