Take a look at the headlines. Iraq is on the verge of self-destruction. An international gang of mercenaries has just established a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. Ukraine is in deep turmoil. In Egypt, a military coup has just staged a ridiculous election and jailed journalists to hide its atrocities. In Afghanistan, yet another presidential election is publicly challenged. In Palestine, Israelis are again out on a rampage, killing innocent people under their military occupation, while African immigrants to the Jewish state have appealed to the UN to save them from abuse. In the US, the memo justifying drone killing has been released, with the habitual legalese gobbledygook.
All these exceptionally important – and even world-historic – events happened at a time when people around the world were far more interested in the World Cup than in political news. It brings to mind an old cartoon in which US military advisors tell US President George W Bush: “We could invade Iran right now and nobody would notice.”
So, why is that?
Brazil is in deep financial crisis. FIFA is a notoriously corrupt institution. Qatar is under the spotlight for its guest labour practices as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup. The scandal of trafficked players, particularly from Africa to Europe, is common knowledge.
“They come to Europe to play for AC Milan or Paris St-Germain,” as one Guardian article put it, “but the reality for many talented young African footballers, children not much older than nine, is that they will find themselves selling fake handbags on the streets.”
These and many other scandals have hit soccer enthusiasts, and yet the World Cup goes on triumphantly. Why?
A level playing field
The soccer (or more accurately “football” as the whole world, save for the United States, knows it) we passionately love and follow closely during the World Cup is a magnificent spectacle set on the world stage, and with it, for a fleeting moment, we celebrate the possibility of a fair, just and, level playing field, where rich and poor nations, weak and powerful, famous and unknown, share a reasonable chance to take a swing at fate.
The World Cup is a drama in which the actors, the spectacle, and the spectators – present and absent – around the globe are all, in one passing moment, part of a fair, free, and common play. We become the world in one act of universal ritual that overwhelms and overshadows all the major world religions…
It is here, on this spectacular stage, that the Sermon on the Mount becomes manifest and the blessed might indeed become the meek, for they might (just might) inherit the earth by winning the World Cup. When the referee blows that very first whistle of that very first match of the World Cup of any given year, almost anything is possible – Iran might defeat the US, Nigeria, Russia, Ghana, or Germany, and there is a bizarre cognitive dissonance between what these national signifiers mean on the world political scene and on the football field.
The World Cup is a drama in which the actors, the spectacle, and the spectators – present and absent – around the globe are all, in one passing moment, part of fair, free, and common play. We become the world in one act of universal ritual that overwhelms and overshadows all the major world religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – put together. Christian rituals might be meaningless to Jews or Muslims, as Islamic forms of piety seem strange to the whole non-Muslim world. But not football the way FIFA has regulated it.
Ask any kid from Palestine to Portugal, India to Ghana: the whole world knows the rules, performs the rituals, suffers the consequences or enjoys the results more readily than they fathom or fear any promise or admonition of heaven or hell in any soteriology. The names of top strikers like Lionel Messi (Argentina), Robin van Persie (Netherlands), or Luis Suarez (Uruguay), are known better than the saints of any religion.
The results of matches, however heartbreaking, are accepted begrudgingly in the face of the fierce urgency of the next game. The host country was almost ousted when playing against Chile. It is as if the fate of our humanity is decided on that very last goal of that very last game. All the rules are known, actors knowable, agency earned, fame deserved. Precious few, except the aficionado, know the players of various teams before the games start, but by the time the games are over, we know and love or disregard them more passionately than Biblical or Quranic prophets. Right now, there are more people around the world who know the details of Uruguay striker Luis Suarez biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini than can recount any Biblical account.
There is a satisfying immediacy and justice to football that the world of politics sorely lacks. In world politics, a war criminal like Dick Cheney or Tony Blair is instrumental in destroying an entire nation-state and all its institutions, and yet gets away with it. Not in the World Cup. One nasty move and one is first yellow-, then red-carded, at which point he is out of the game. Here in the real world, Dick Cheney or Tony Blair actually get to write articles for newspapers and magazines denouncing the current US president for not having finished the destruction of Baghdad the way they had intended it.
Politics, though, intrude on football like an obnoxious and unwanted guest. Soon after the 1-0 victory of Argentina over Iran, the Argentinian striker Lionel Messi, who had scored the only goal against Iran, evidently received a supportive tweet from some account purporting to belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), congratulating him on his goal and inviting him to join the murderous organisation, giving him the honorific title of “Abu Mehdaf the Argentinian”, and appointing him “a prince over South America and its environs”. Sounding more like a nauseating joke than real, the tweet actually received a full report from the Washington Post. I still believe it to be a joke – a sick joke.
Messi was not the only person at the receiving end of an unwanted tweet. Football-crazy druglord Fernando Sanchez Arellano was also “busted while watching World Cup“. According to reports, “Arellano, the leader of the once-mighty Arellano Felix drug cartel which inspired the Hollywood movie Traffic, was detained in the border city of Tijuana earlier this week. The 42-year-old boss, known as ‘The Engineer’, was totally absorbed watching Mexico playing the last match of the group stage against Croatia, when security forces walked onto the premises and arrested him.”
Soccer is politics as we wish it were: fair, fine, furious, just, and beautiful. We cheer our favourite teams because they play on a level playing field, in the broad daylight of history, for the whole world to watch, with the naked power and the visible audacity that have nowhere to hide, no secret to conceal, no treachery to harbour.
We know the fault lines of football before we get to the World Cup, but for a fleeting moment we blink and open our eyes – wide shut and open – upon a mythical stage where life can be fair and fine, so we can go back to the wretched world of politics and imagine our purposes anew.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.