CAPE TOWN — The 2018 World Cup revealed much about the state of our world, and not simply in the triumphal smile of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the arch-nemesis of the liberal global order, as he presided over the final match, the planet’s largest spectacle, at a time when traditional centers of Western power such as NATO, the Group of 7 and the European Union face existential crises. But it did rain on Mr. Putin’s parade, not only literally (a downpour began minutes after the final ended) but also figuratively in that the match provided an estimated television audience of at least one billion for a pitch-invasion protest by the dissident performance artists Pussy Riot.
This year’s World Cup also saw an upending of traditional world soccer power arrangements in a metaphorical echo of today’s global political economy. Consider the fate of the established international power centers of the past half century, the countries that make up something like football’s G-7: Italy and the Netherlands failed to qualify; Germany fell (to Mexico!) during the group stage; Argentina and Spain were sent home in the knockout round, while Brazil lost to Belgium in the quarterfinals. Only France made it as far as the semifinals.
International football’s equivalent of the BRICS countries — Uruguay, Switzerland, Croatia, Belgium, Colombia or England — are increasingly competitors to the game’s G-7. (Apologies for any offense that a BRICS ranking causes among those of the English persuasion, but military and economic prowess notwithstanding, England has reached just one final of a World Cup or European Nations Cup tournament.)
The globalization of tactics and of Europe’s elite club leagues help explain how even a team of modest individual talents (like Iceland) can tie with an established power like Argentina. And that same globalization of tactics — through migration of coaches and players — has made it more commonplace to see a team from soccer’s “G20,” like Senegal or Japan, beat a G-7 team.
This year has seen globalization under assault in the political realm, particularly across Europe, where nationalists effectively exploit fears of the erosion of “national character” as a result of trade and migration. While the point is offensive and parochial when it comes to the nation, it’s not necessarily wrong in football.
“A style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and its right to be different,” the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano once wrote. “Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are.” That’s no longer true, unless by “who you are” we mean one of a handful of influential European club coaches.
The free and expressive “Samba football” once associated with Brazil is long dead; since the 1990s the Brazilian team has played with the defensive discipline typical of the best Italian sides of the ’80s. The physicality and athleticism of Germany’s “Mannschaft,” by contrast, has been eclipsed by a nimble, creative fluidity once more typical of Brazil. Argentina’s dribblers scarcely dribble; England passes the ball out from the back rather than hoofing it aimlessly upfield.
What explains the eclipse of distinct “languages” of the game by the tactical Esperanto we saw in Russia? About three-quarters of the players in this year’s World Cup play their professional club football in Europe’s elite leagues, whose games are broadcast globally every week. None of the Croatian players who started Sunday’s final play in their native country, while just one of France’s 11 starters plays at home. Most of the world’s top players and coaches earn their wages at a handful of teams in England, Spain, Italy and Germany, so followers of Europe’s elite leagues saw no new tactical innovations, and almost all of the players on show were familiar.
Globalization in football encounters little resistance, even from those who oppose it in the political realm, because trends of the past two decades suggest that xenophobic nationalism is not a winning formula for choosing a national team or its tactics. If Nigel Farage, an anti-immigrant politician in Britain, advocated that England again limit the selection of black players or revive England’s “national style,” he’d be laughed at by any football fan. In football in 2018, if not in politics, xenophobia is incompatible with winning.
Another key lesson from this year’s World Cup was that football is rarely a game decided by individual stars — the hype around epic showdowns between Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazil’s Neymar was mocked by the failure of all three to lift their teams beyond mediocrity. Football, like history itself, is an enterprise whose outcomes are determined less by “great men” than by the complex interaction of decisions and actions by a wide range of allied and opposing actors. The same principle is worth bearing in mind, also, when trying to make sense of a global political landscape crowded with noisy demagogues.
The 2018 World Cup largely evaded the narrative of the proverbial clash of nationalisms. Sure, there was a small taste in matches echoing the Balkan wars, whether in the form of Switzerland’s Kosovar-Albanian refugee stars, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, who made the double-headed eagle sign of the Albanian flag to celebrate scoring against Serbia; the Serbian foreign minister proclaiming his team’s victory over Costa Rica as “one small, sweet revenge” for that country’s vote to recognize Kosovo; or reports from the Croatian dressing room of the singing of songs celebrating that country’s fascist Ustashe movement.
But if anything, the tournament in Russia was more of a celebration of the “globalism” so detested by the nationalist right. The final four teams were all European, but half of Belgium’s and England’s players and three-quarters of France’s had roots in Africa and the Caribbean. Even Russia, nobody’s poster child for cosmopolitanism, only took their quarterfinal match into penalties thanks to a goal by their recently naturalized Brazilian fullback, Mário Fernandes.
The migrations of the past half century have made the identity politics of the World Cup steadily more complex: Brazil, for example, has long been adopted as a kind of proxy representative of Africa, and much of the global south. African fans, as the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has noted, are not bound in their affections by the nation-state borders imposed on the continent by European colonialism. A fan in Congo might cheer passionately for Senegal against Japan, but could face a dilemma when watching Belgium (with its five players of Congolese parentage) play France (which included four). A soccer spectacle that gives physical form to the idea of the nation reminds us also that our identities may be more complex, fluid and connected than those traditionally permitted by the singularity of citizenship.
So, when President Trump salutes France for playing “extraordinary soccer” and Mr. Putin for staging “a truly great World Cup,” he’s applauding a spectacle that in every sense repudiates the core beliefs he has championed in politics.
More than anything else, Sunday’s final match offered a vision: Despite the dangerous fissures that continue to divide us and the darkening prospects in many corners of the globe, we remain a single, connected human community capable of sharing the drama and the unbridled joy at the global triumph of a French team drawn from the immigrant suburbs of Paris — and all the epic possibilities offered by the intimacy of such sharing.
Tony Karon (@tonykaron) is the editorial lead of AJ+ and a contributor to the “Game of Our Lives” podcast. He teaches on soccer and politics at the New School.