The World Cup Isn’t About Football. It’s About Everything.

Posted June 11, 2018 6:24 p.m. EDT


Here we are again on the eve of the planet’s greatest traveling festival: Yes, it’s almost time for the World Cup. This event — every four years, 32 teams, one champion — is about so much more than what happens on the grass among 22 men. It’s about politics, economics, social issues. It’s about race and class and history. It’s about corruption and nationalism, fear and joy. It’s about everything. And I’ll be exploring all of this in Offsides, this twice-weekly newsletter that will run for the duration of the tournament.

Why am I writing this? Well, my attachment to this game has long been personal — my grandfather Julio Peter Abe coached the Ugandan national side for several years — and professional. I’ve written two books about football (and yes, in this newsletter we will be calling the game by its proper name). And as a social commentator, poet and activist, I am equally interested in what is happening beyond the field. As this newsletter’s name suggests — playing on one of the game’s most contested rules — we’re going to be looking at every issue during the 2018 World Cup.

While some countries, like Germany, France, Brazil and Spain, may hope or expect to be the stars of the show, others — see, for example, first-timers like Iceland and Panama — are happy just to have made the lineup. As ever, those who failed to qualify will have their noses pressed enviously against the fence.

There may be no more fitting host, given the state of the world today, than Russia. Be sure to read Ken Bensinger’s explosive report here about how Moscow emerged unscathed from a corruption investigation that cut to the heart of FIFA. Every country that hosts this tournament does so in order to boast, to make a statement about its place on the world stage. In 2010, South Africa hosted in part to show that an African country, despite doubts and stereotypes, could superbly stage a global showpiece. Brazil did it in 2014, against the backdrop of egregious corruption and soaring inequality, to project the sense its own competence and prowess.

When France won the World Cup in 1998, claiming the trophy on home soil with a team whose heroes hailed from diverse backgrounds, its victory was viewed as a decisive triumph for inclusivity and racial harmony. A few years earlier, Francis Fukuyama had hailed Western liberal democracy as the “the end of history.” Both visions — given the growing support for France’s far-right National Front party and the gathering clouds of populist nationalism around the world — now seem naïve. And Russia, of course, is unconcerned with maintaining any progressive facade. So it’s appropriate that the tournament’s first game — between Russia and Saudi Arabia — features two countries whose abuse of the human rights of its own citizens is particularly egregious.

But it’s not all about the dark sides. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was played out against the backdrop of severe repression by the ruling government and it was still a great tournament. That’s because the World Cup is a seductive affair. It’s fun. And once the music starts, many of the revelers will become oblivious to the screams coming from adjacent fields. (This year’s official song is, appropriately, a dance-floor filler by Nicky Jam, a Latino American reggaeton star, with backing from Era Istrefi, a Kosovar pop diva, and Will Smith.)

This tournament, as ever, will hold up a mirror to us viewers. I hope that, even as we enjoy the play before us, we don’t look away from those ordinary citizens working for social progress, often within earshot of every stadium.

Offsides will wrap up after the World Cup ends, but readers will continue to receive compelling commentary from The New York Times Opinion section. Until then, enjoy this journey with me. The first game is on June 14. I can’t wait.

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