A final reflection on this year’s World Cup:
Global football is a historical product; it has been shaped from its beginnings by multiple forces, shot through with politics, culture, pathos and pride. And, like all other social phenomena, it has two sides; it has always been a contested terrain. Thus, though not always, if you look at it with a certain kind of eye, you can, at certain times, see the world reflected in soccer.
In this way, there is a weird kind of affinity between the contemporaneous events of Brazil being hammered by German goals, Rio’s favelas being bulldozed by developers, and Gaza being hammered by Israeli bombs. In their own peculiar fashion, what we witness politically is the attempted breaking of a subaltern nation, the punishing of insurgent citizenship by the relentless powers of the dominant global order; and we feel, though hopefully to vastly different degrees, a similar sense nonetheless of shock, revulsion, outrage, and disbelief at the suffering we must witness.
From the failed experiment with a win-at-all-costs approach, to the spaces of the stadiums, to the fact that the commodification of players and Europe’s buying-up of the best from the Global South produces a national roster that cannot cohere as a team, to the physical and psychic toll on the workers, most visibly the players themselves – what happened to Brazil on the field somehow encapsulates the country’s experience with the neoliberal grand slam.
But what we also see in the face of these travesties is a refusal to be broken, of solidarity across borders, of collective compassion, respect, and strength – the little girl singing the Brazilian anthem with all her heart, German players embracing their vanquished, protestors continuing to brave the shock troops on the streets outside the Maracanã, Algeria pledging its World Cup prize money to Gaza.
And Germany showed how a different kind of model can produce a different kind of game: how investment in what’s widely regarded as a public good cultivates undeniably superior levels of quality, beauty, and dignity in collective team play. Of course, Germany does this because it can; because Angela Merkel has the privilege of not practicing what she preaches, and imposes, on other national economies.
Who knows what horrors we have yet to see in Russia by 2018, or in Qatar by 2022. We have already seen death, repression, and corruption; and we will most likely continue to see in some quarters a brutal, conservative style of play, a viewing experience that lies somewhere between the boring and the painful. But perhaps the best moments of this World Cup also remind us that another football, and another world, is possible – in the ever-present, indomitable heart and soul of the people, and the people’s game.