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World Cup 2018: A View from the Stands

Carl Recine/Reuters
Fans watching Belgium play Panama in an Irish bar in Moscow, Russia, June 18, 2018

This is the sixteenth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

 

I’ve been staying in an Airbnb in a Soviet-era apartment block in Moscow to cover the World Cup, but my children back home in Paris are living the tournament more intensely than I am. Though I’m British and my wife is American, our children were born in Paris and identify uncomplicatedly as French. For France’s first few games, each of their gang of friends took turns to host a viewing party at home.

Parents and kids would cram into somebody’s little apartment, cheer on France over helpings of pizza, then sing Beatles songs together and watch whichever match was up next. Our living room was left smeared with red-white-and-blue face-paint after all the children rolled on the floor to celebrate France’s goals. My kids’ friends have family origins in Portugal, Greece, and Senegal, but everyone supports les Bleus (and sometimes the family’s ancestral team, too).

Then school ended and most people disappeared for the summer, so my wife and kids watched the France–Belgium semi-final in a café on our street where the customers howled the national anthem before the kickoff. Afterward, crowds of people trooped to the local Place de la République. The last time it filled up like that was for the “Republican march” following the terrorist attacks against the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015.

My children are twelve, nine, and nine, and this is the first World Cup they have experienced fully consciously. Certainly, now that France has reached Sunday’s final against Croatia, they will always remember this month and the friends with whom they watched the games, just as I can recall entire evenings from the World Cups in 1978 and 1982 more vividly than almost anything else from my childhood.

The emotional locus of this tournament is more in living rooms and bars around the world than here in the place where the thing is actually happening. That’s not because there is anything wrong with Russia. On the contrary, it’s been very pleasant here. The country has put on a much friendlier World Cup than anyone expected. Terrible hooliganism had been prophesied following an attack by Russians on English fans in Marseille at the 2016 European Championships, but this World Cup has been as nonviolent as the previous four. It seems that Putin’s security people paid a visit to all known Russian hooligans before the tournament.

England fans who arrived here were too scared at first to wear their team shirts, given the media headlines predicting hooliganism, and the political tensions between Britain and Russia—literally toxic since the incidents of poisoning in the UK by a nerve agent only made in Russia. Now they report Russians coming up to them to practice their English or to tell them about their favorite English soccer club, or simply to reaffirm their lifelong Anglophilia. Peruvians and Poles have danced on the streets of Russian provincial cities, and Russians have joined in, while police officers watched benevolently and posed for selfies.

The historian of Russia Yuri Slezkine, author of The House of Government (2017), says the World Cup recalls the World Festival of Youth and Students of 1957, when Nikita Khrushchev suddenly drew aside the Iron Curtain and 34,000 people from some 130 countries came to Moscow. Then, too, young Russians were delighted. People still talk of the “deti festivalya,” referring to all the biracial children who were supposedly born to Soviet women nine months later. Russians don’t get too many chances to feel connected to the world, or to dance on their own streets, and they have enjoyed this month. There has been plenty of happy international fraternization in the bars.

In the stadiums, though, there was little of the mass patriotic passion that viewers like so much about World Cups. The atmosphere at most matches—except perhaps the three played by Peru, whose team seemed to have brought along half the country for its brief, disappointing effort here—was pretty tame, a lot tamer than it seems to have been in my own living room in Paris. That’s simply the way it is with a modern World Cup. The venue nowadays is what the French anthropologist Marc Augé calls a “non-place.” There is no “there” here.

When friends hear that I’m at the World Cup, they often say how envious they are. They don’t need to be. I watch games squeezed in among other chubby, middle-aged British journalists in the press stand, eating my dinner of peanuts from the stadium vending machine. I rarely care who wins. Nor, usually, do most of the spectators. The crowd at most games consists chiefly of neutral Russians, who fill the duller stretches with chants of “Rossiya,” along with fans whose countries have already been knocked out but who weren’t ready to go home yet. (The biggest banner carried by fans in my late-night Moscow metro train after Wednesday’s England-Croatia semi-final was a portrait of Argentina’s national soccer hero, Diego Maradona.)

Many spectators spend much of the time during the games filming themselves. I know this is now a cliché about modern life, but it wasn’t like this even at the last World Cup, in Brazil in 2014, when videos on social media weren’t yet as common. And whenever a knot of fans shows anything that looks like the authentic patriotic passion for which World Cups are famous—singing their country’s name while banging a drum, say—everyone else gathers round and starts filming them. Anyone showing passion in the stadium is almost guaranteed to be picked up by the TV cameras. Then the kids watching in Paris, France, or Dayton, Ohio, or Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, wish they were at the World Cup.

I have now been to eight World Cups, and the best moments for me have always been away from the stadium. This time, the thrill was discovering provincial Russia. Say what you like about big tech companies, but Airbnb and Yandex (Russia’s equivalent of Uber, with an English-language app) have made the provinces more accessible than ever before. I stayed in mostly suburban apartment blocks all around the country, had conversations with many of my hosts—usually, educated women who spoke excellent English—and came away wishing I had seen more of Samara and Nizhny Novgorod than the stadium media centers.

There have been one or two unforgettably weird experiences. In Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, I toured the World War II memorials and then relaxed in the café of the nearby Stalin Museum. Waitresses in period khaki uniforms served beer to foreign soccer fans, while some Tunisians photographed themselves in Soviet military greatcoats and caps. Beside them, a TV was showing the Sweden–South Korea match. Beside that was a portrait of Stalin, and underneath it sat a group of Russian men doing what most Russians do when the World Cup is on TV: not watching. That scene will stay with me for longer than the England–Tunisia game that had brought me to town.

All World Cups become repetition (another difference between my kids and me: nothing can ever match your first tournament). Nick Hornby wrote in his 1992 soccer fan’s memoir Fever Pitch, “I have measured out my life in Arsenal fixtures,” and many more of us measure it out in World Cups. You find yourself comparing what’s happening on the field now not just to the last World Cup, or to the 1982 World Cup, but even to the World Cups you’ve heard about that happened before you were born. For England fans, for instance, the question before the semi-final was: Could the nation repeat its lone triumph of 1966?

Sunday’s France–Croatia final is, in part, just a repetition of the France–Croatia semi-final of 1998. For many French people, in fact, this entire World Cup is a repetition of the World Cup of 1998, the only one France has ever won. France’s impish coach, Didier Deschamps, was the captain that year, and at the press conference after this week’s semi-final in St. Petersburg, he kept having to ward off questions about the earlier tournament. “One should live in one’s time,” he chided. “I never, ever talk to the players about my story. I’m with them to write a new story. Looking in the rearview mirror—I’m not like that.”

But most people are like that. It’s often said that an imaginary golden age is typically located about twenty years in the past, too long ago to remember clearly, and a time when the person doing the remembering was young. Sunday’s final comes twenty years and three days after France’s black, blanc, beur” (“black, white, Arab”) team thumped Brazil 3–0 in the 1998 final. It was a golden summer. The winning French team became a symbol of a united multiracial France that could also win. The soccer victory was going to melt away racial divides.

It didn’t happen. France has since been through two decades of economic stagnation, fading global power, terrorism, ethnic riots, and then the anxiety that the anti-immigrant politician Marine Le Pen would win last year’s presidential elections. This time, almost everyone understands that winning the World Cup won’t transform France.

But winning would be nice. If my children’s heroes—Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, and nineteen-year-old Kylian Mbappé, perhaps the most talented teenager on earth—can overwhelm Croatia’s diminutive playmaker Luka Modrić, a man who can find the most precious of commodities on a soccer field, space, it would reaffirm that France is now in a happier moment. French voters in last year’s elections sidestepped the populist trap into which the US, the UK, and Italy have tumbled. The French economy is growing again. France hasn’t had a major terrorist attack since the deadly truck rampage in Nice, two years ago this Bastille Day. The spontaneous Parisian celebrations at the Place de la République and on the Champs-Elysées, with far less security than there would have been two years ago, show that the French are reclaiming their streets from the terrorists. Still, the country’s security forces must be fearful about Sunday night.

Emmanuel Macron, perhaps the luckiest of presidents given his improbable ascent, is populist enough to manipulate these shared experiences. When France’s favorite pop star, Johnny Hallyday, died last December and Paris stopped for his funeral, Macron told the crowds on the church steps: “You had to be there for Johnny, because from the start Johnny was there for you… He became an indispensable presence, a friend, a brother.” Sophie Pedder, in her new biography of Macron, Revolution Française, says the president hopes to provide the French “with moments of collective exaltation, of common feeling, that bring a nation together, in awe or in sorrow.” On Sunday, he will surely be in the presidential box at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, beside his host, Vladimir Putin. If the Bleus win, then, twenty years from now, my French children will remember this as their golden summer.