Football is the one cultural phenomenon that still unites the globe: the World Cup, the ultimate universal spectacle, engulfed our planet for the last four weeks, trumping even the Olympic Games where teary-eyed medal ceremonies evoke great telegenic moments. The high mass of the global game culminated with a French crowning, Les Bleus defeating Croatia in a spectacular six-goal final. Once again, the World Cup and football proved to command an unmatchable reach.
“For a couple of years, I was saying it would be the best World Cup ever,” said FIFA president Gianni Infantino on the eve of the final. “Today I can say that with more conviction.” In many ways Infantino was right: Russia 2018 was the most entertaining World Cup in a generation, and yet at times the tournament felt like ‘sportwashing,’ legitimising the regimes of both Vladimir Putin and Infantino against a backdrop of corruption, graft and crackdowns. Only Pussy Riot disturbed the narrative of four weeks of blissful football with a pitch invasion during the final.
The more football has become globalised, the more it has become politicised, the more we all seem to like it, revel in it, absorb and savour it. Thus Mesut Ozil’s statement — of which “In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose” was the most stinging part — didn’t come as much of a surprise; football has always been a reflection of society and thus an arena for racism. Complaints of racism and a lack of respect are hardly new, and miss the point — it’s as old as the hills.
In 1958, Brazil arrived on the global stage, sweeping past the much-fancied hosts Sweden in the final. They wowed the world with their football, even winning over Sweden coach, George Raynor, whose pre-match comments were condemned as racist. Raynor had played an important role in bringing Swedish football to the fore, winning a gold medal at the 1948 Olympics and taking Sweden to third place in the 1950 World Cup. Didi, Brazil’s midfield lynchpin at the time, would go on to coach Peru at the 1970 World Cup, falling at the hands of the eventual winners, his native country. He was considered to be an excellent coach, but he never got a serious chance to coach the Selecao. In fact, in Brazil, the country of ‘racial equality,’ no black coach has ever commanded the national team.
In Russia, Senegal’s Aliou Cisse was the only black coach at the World Cup. “If there were more African trainers with African teams, the probability that we could demonstrate our competence would increase,” Cisse told me before the tournament. “The under-representation is such that the question is almost a pleonasm. It remains to be seen whether our under-representation is due to a lack of information or a lack of openness from the other federations. It is an open question that deserves to be explored in depth. I know that CAF has undertaken initiatives in this direction. More and more, education is being developed on the African continent and that is a very good thing. It might encourage other African federations to make the choices that other continents are already taking.”
Senegal didn’t progress to the second round, eliminated by Japan through the fair-play rule. In their opening game they defeated Poland 2-1 and yet were called the ‘physical’ side by plenty of analysts. This assumption about African teams is almost ingrained in football punditry and seems to exclude assigning any other qualities to African teams — they must by definition by tall, powerful and paced.
The admiration for multicultural teams in Russia — the world champions, Belgium, England and Morocco among others — proved to be specious. Ozil, 2014 World Cup winner, became an easy scapegoat following his pre-tournament photo with Turkish autocrat Recep Erdogan, but the midfielder was scarcely the only player to underwhelm in the Germany camp, which had suffered from a very turbulent build-up to the tournament.
In the bowels of the Luzhniki Stadium, Paul Pogba, who enjoyed a stellar World Cup, shouted ‘For France’ in the moments after the final, but even the new world champions were told by some sections of the French populace that the World Cup had been won by an ‘African’ team.
It’s then that football and the world are in a worse place then 2014 when the previous World Cup has been played out. At the time, the tournament seemed an excessive, capitalist, commercial juggernaut in a mildly centrist world. Today, football and all its excesses — the TV rights money, the investment from a plethora of oligarchs, sheikhs and businessmen, the geopolitical interests — simply seem embedded in a world fitting its own unhinged image, and so in a polarised society racism is rampant, remaining a big stain on the game.
Updated Date: Jul 25, 2018 09:46 AM