A series of essays on the World Cup, guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, featuring Vanessa Barbara on Brazil, Francisco Goldman on Mexico, Geoff Dyer on England, Elda Cantú on Peru, Gabriel Pasquini on Argentina, Oumar Ba on Senegal, Laurent Dubois on Belgium, S. Nathan Park on South Korea, Mona Eltahawy on Egypt, Aida Alami on Morocco, Peter L’Official on France, Piotr Orlov on Russia, Christopher de Bellaigue on England, Ivan Sršen on Croatia, and Simon Kuper in Russia.
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. But 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.
I sat on our sofa in Zagreb with my son, now the same age as I was back in 1990, to watch Croatia play Argentina in our second match in the World Cup in Russia. Twenty-eight years have passed since the summer that’s stuck in my mind, ever after, as the end of my innocence and my country’s. But suddenly, I was taking part in a remake of that long-gone experience, made up of familiar actors: Maradona was there, in the VIP section of the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, an eleven-year-old boy was sitting next to me, and I was watching the screen in disbelief: “How on earth is Croatia going to pull this off?”
Nine months before the UK leaves Europe, the terms of our disengagement have gone from unclear to opaque, and the government is vulnerable to internal revolt. But the good news eclipses the bad, doesn’t it? And all that—and Boris Johnson, and the Brexit question of what is to happen to the Irish border, and the future of our blight-ravaged high streets—is marginalia. As a nation, England has to concentrate on the task at hand and ignore peripheral distractions. Come on, football, you know you want it.
The boys with whom I ran around the courtyard of our apartment building in central Leningrad were not vested in football. When hockey sticks appeared, they’d fight bitterly over which of the CSKA forward line they would impersonate, with Valeri Kharlamov the demigod most in-demand. The only Soviet football player who could compete for the imagination of little hooligans with such supreme beings from abroad as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, and my eccentric personal favorite, Gerd Muller, was not actually Russian but Ukrainian: Oleh Blokhin, the superlative Dynamo Kiev striker.
The distance I feel from this team is one born of the disjuncture between what this side should be—adventurous, exciting, attacking—and what, to date, it has been: ponderous and predictable, preferring to knock long balls upfield or hit speculative crosses to no one in particular. Pogba, Mbappé, Griezmann, and Fekir have all provided moments of penetrating thought and action, but these have been too few to give this French side a characteristic style. These Bleus seem to be decidedly not themselves.
No matter how disillusioned you are with your country’s team or how frustrated with your country’s government, it still hurts to see a squad of players, dressed in the national colors, not succeed. But as that strong final game reminded me, it’s hard not to feel proud when they do. Between that opening loss to Iran and the second half against Spain, something changed. Maybe it happened sixteen minutes into the Portugal game, when our ebullient winger Nordin Amrabat, who had received a head injury in the game against Iran, tossed away his protective headgear and urged the team on. That won Moroccans’ hearts.
In Egypt, we have been living under an almost unbroken series of military-backed dictatorships since 1952. This has ruined our political life, filled our prisons with some 60,000 political prisoners, and destroyed many forms of creative expression. Even our imagination is repressed—and you could tell from the timid way we played against Uruguay that we lack the flair and boldness necessary to succeed on soccer’s international stage. The World Cup is both the mirage we endlessly chase and the uncomfortable reflection of questions we refuse to confront.
By 2016, the young people of the 2002 World Cup generation had reached early middle-age, forming the electoral core of Korean society. When President Park was exposed as a feeble-minded puppet, Korean civil society staged one of the greatest protests in the modern democratic history: the Candlelight Protests, which lasted from November 2016 to March 2017. In the cold of winter, more than a million people chanted and sang to demand a restoration of democracy. Like the Taegeuk Warriors team in 2002, against the odds they won.
National team managers of earlier generations made sure to have a balance of Walloon and Flemish players on the squad. Fans of today’s more diverse team find workarounds to the basic French-Flemish linguistic problem by chanting in English or just humming the tune of Verdi’s “Triumphal March.” The Belgium it embodies is youthful and global; at its best, it is promising, cohesive, and joyous.
In 2002, in Seoul, France entered the game as the defending world champion, whereas Senegal, captained by Aliou Cissé, was playing its first ever game in a World Cup championship. The whole world was watching as Bouba Diop scored. After that famous win over the former colonizer, crowds flooded the streets of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. This week, Senegal returned to the World Cup with another chance to enchant the world. Against Poland, Cissé’s team played with discipline and verve, and won 2-1—a win that signaled another possible wild ride for the “Lions.”
After a visit in the 1960s, the French writer and culture minister André Malraux was reported to observe, shrewdly, that “Buenos Aires is the capital to an empire that never happened.” Accordingly, Argentina is divided between warring factions that hark back to the nineteenth century, and we’re always expecting a providential man or woman to save us. We pour a distillation of this tense brew into our national sports, the games bequeathed us by our golden age. We look to our players for the chance to recover what we’ve lost, the triumph denied.
The last time this country had cheered for la Blanquirroja, as the national side is known, in a World Cup was in 1982. One third of Peruvians had not even been born then, but they all remember that the last time had been a catastrophe. “The Peruvian defeat hurts again because, once more, the syndromes that disconcert and plague us appear: it seems that the Peruvian players have no soul, no testicles or blood,” wrote the sociologist and writer Abelardo Sánchez León at the time. “We can’t continue accepting that this way of playing football corresponds to the idiosyncrasy of our people.”
Good old England, good old Yob-land. Even if the Russians are better-prepared, fitter, and, not for the first time in their history, fighting on home soil, I still have faith in our hooligans to show their mettle and do us proud. We want England to be non-racist, non-homophobic, non-misogynistic and all that, but, God knows, however much we hate yobs, we don’t ever want England to be yob-free. No one will ever put it better than D.H. Lawrence of Nottingham Forest FC who considered himself “English in the teeth of all the world, even in the teeth of England.”
For a while, I was still kind of hoping Mexico wouldn’t do well in the 2018 World Cup. What if reaching that coveted fifth match, in the round of eight, enflamed nationalist sentiment and helped the ruling PRI do better in this summer’s coming election? But under Enrique Peña Nieto’s PRI presidency, the country’s situation has become so dire, and the PRI and the political establishment have become so unpopular, that for once it’s clear that the World Cup isn’t going to distract from more urgent realities, no matter how well El Tri, the national team, performs. An election promising a historic political realignment seems to be in the offing.
For the first time in years, people are confident about the squad. Commentators love Brazil’s coach, Tite, as well as the team’s biggest star, Neymar. Besides, we can always count on Jesus—the forward Gabriel Jesus. There is a growing sense of the possibility of redemption by avenging that 7-1 home defeat against Germany in the semifinals of the last World Cup. But whether Brazil succeeds or fails in Russia, the outcome will be equally permeated with an old bittersweet flavor: the feeling that we are second-class citizens of the world trying to look the other way, in the hope that the euphoria of the next four weeks might extend to months or years, maybe a whole lifetime.
Few spectacles can match World Cup soccer for affirming a fatalistic sense—unless you’re German, and expect to win—that your people were born under a bad sign. To be English, in the world of the World Cup, is to gird oneself for watching your once-great nation crash out on penalties. To be Mexican is to be from a nation forever fated to reach the round of sixteen, but then get eliminated by a bad call or bad luck. Perhaps we can all agree—unless we’re fans of Portugal—on a loathing of Cristiano Ronaldo’s preening antics. But the World Cup looks different depending on where you watch from, as our series featuring writers exploring the Cup’s meanings from the vantage of varied nations taking part aims to show.