What Soccer Says About Us

What Soccer Says About Us

What can the World Cup teach us about national identity and belonging?



They call it the ninety-minute nation. So long as England is playing soccer—a game that lasts ninety minutes—the country exists. The flags of

St. George (England’s patron saint) are aflutter, the national strip is de rigueur and fans parade in period costume (Crusaders’ outfits were all the rage this year). But as soon as the game or tournament is over, the "nation" is no more. The flags disappear; the costumes and strips are folded, washed and preserved for the next game.

Unlike every other team playing in the World Cup, England boasts neither a parliament, state, anthem nor any of the other tropes generally associated with modern nationhood. The United Kingdom, which comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is very much alive. But England truly gains material form only through football (and, to a lesser extent, rugby). Whereas sporting identity emerges from national identity in most nations, in England it’s the opposite. And so it was that on the day England was defeated by Germany in the knockout round, the flag of St. George flew over 10 Downing Street, and by the next morning it was gone—replaced by the UK’s Union Jack.

These elements of Englishness and Britishness may appear, to an American, like distinctions without a difference. But on this side of the Atlantic they can be quite acute. Since Labour brought in devolution, Scotland has had its own parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have elected assemblies that function somewhat like American states. Institutionally, England starts where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland end. The trouble is, there’s no there there. "The imagined community of millions," wrote the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm, "seems more real as a team of eleven named people." In England’s case, our national community is only real as a team of eleven named people.

The notion that you can divine a national mood from a country’s relationship to its national sporting team can be overdone. When France won the World Cup in 1998, the diverse composition of its team was hailed as a great asset, giving hope that a country with deep-seated racial and religious divisions might find a way to come together for the common good. "What better example of our unity and our diversity than this magnificent team," said the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. This utopian vision was clearly not durable. By the time of the next World Cup, far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had beaten Jospin to take second place in the first round of presidential elections. This year, the squad was riven with racial and religious infighting, sparking a racially charged national dialogue about segregation and a "ghetto mentality."

Sport can only do so much, and as a metaphor it can be crude and problematic. The nationalism it produces can be vile, violent and susceptible to manipulation. Immediately after Egypt won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006, the government raised food prices. "It was the only time the government thought they could get away with it," argues Steve Bloomfield in his book Africa United. "And they were right." After Cameroonian President Paul Biya stole elections in 1992, a general strike was called on the day before a World Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe. Biya announced that if Cameroon won, the next day would be a national holiday. The strike was called off.

Finally, having a national identity funneled through an exclusively male tournament (women’s soccer is growing but still has nowhere near the cultural reach) is inherently limiting.

But for all that, the symbolic significance cannot be denied, lest symbols, in the words of George Carlin, be left to the symbol-minded. During a sensitive period in the Ivory Coast after a peace deal had been signed, Didier Drogba, the national star, insisted that one of the qualifying games be played in the north where regional alienation was considerable, and many argued it made a big difference. In England a new generation of nonwhites has started to embrace the national team in a way that was rare for their forebears.

Intriguingly, it is in the country where patriotism is fiercest, the United States, that these discussions are weakest—not because nationalism is not a significant force but because soccer is so marginal. A great deal is made in Europe of this as an illustration of America’s isolationism and voracious commercial culture—two halves and too few goals, American advertisers say, leaves insufficient time to sell anything. There is some truth to this, but far more snobbery. The United States has a robust sports culture of its own in baseball and football, and a big enough market to sustain it. But what has been truly stunning these past few weeks has not been the US ambivalence toward soccer in general but the particular antagonism from the right. Glenn Beck lambasted the sport, claiming that Obama’s policies are "the World Cup of political thought." "We don’t like the World Cup. We don’t like soccer. We want nothing to do with it…. I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much, and they riot over it, and they continually try to jam it down our throat." G. Gordon Liddy asked, "Whatever happened to American exceptionalism?" He then went on to claim, erroneously, that soccer "originated with the South American Indians; and instead of a ball, they used to use the head, the decapitated head, of an enemy warrior."

Not for the first time, they are on the wrong side of history. According to FIFA, more World Cup tickets have been sold in the United States than anywhere else in the world outside South Africa, and games have drawn record ratings. Moreover, unlike the English team, on which a fragile national identity hangs, the US team performed quite well, finishing at the top of its group and going on to the next round before being knocked out by Ghana in extra time. With nuance and grace, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post headline summed up the right’s attitude toward these impressive efforts: This Sport Is Stupid Anyway.

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