No sport lends itself to symbolism like football. And for one month, every four years, the inclination to view the beautiful game as a microcosm of our changing world, its virtues and failings, becomes extreme. The 2018 World Cup has proved no exception.
History, politics and faith have resounded in stadia across Russia over the past few weeks. Those of us with a weakness for allegory, who presume, as Welsh writer Jan Morris once wrote, “everything to mean more than it has any honest claim to mean”, have been in an expansive mood.
We have watched Brazil’s economic crisis mirrored in Seleção’s shocking quarter-final exit, mused on the Brexit-defying make-up of the England team, lauded Iran’s female supporters as harbingers of a new political order and winced as old Balkan hatreds were rekindled. Even, in Lionel Messi’s sublime goal against Nigeria – probably his last on the world stage – a suggestion of the divine. The Argentinian’s ritual homage to Celia Olivera Cuccittini, his beloved late grandmother, the woman who lifted the young prodigy through fears that dwarfism would shatter his footballing prospects and to whom he points after scoring every goal, was different this time. His skyward gaze was preternaturally intense, his expression gaunt, almost bodiless. He knew. Or so I imagine.
Malawi made its first appearance at a World Cup finals this year in the slight frame of a 10-year old boy named Tazizwa Kasambara, the official match ball carrier for Morocco versus Iran. Son of the country’s former Justice Minister, currently serving a 13-year jail sentence for conspiracy to murder a leading anti-corruption official, Tazizwa was selected from over a hundred youngsters due to his glitzy touch, dribbling prowess and assured penalty-taking. Malawian media reported that he performed flawlessly in Russia but never got to meet his idol, Messi.
Malawi’s national team is one of the more than forty in Africa never to have qualified for the World Cup. This year was especially dire. Just two nations from south of the Sahara made it to Russia, neither getting past the group stage. Various reasons have been advanced to explain why so few African sides have excelled internationally despite an abundance of talent and near religious devotion to the game across the continent. Poverty and corruption are always mentioned, though similar conditions in South America hardly seem to have mattered. Perhaps, in time, the gap between these two football-obsessed continents will narrow. This would seem almost natural given their strong ethnic and cultural links, and their shared history of survival under European domination and home-spun authoritarianism. Some might say it is already written in football’s evolving mythology, which is increasingly nourished by African stories.
I succumbed to this idea not so long ago, at a match on a small island in a big lake, roughly where east Africa meets southern Africa. Most of the players had shoes though not all. They wore old uniforms of Arsenal and Chelsea donated by a rich tourist. The pitch was an unyielding rectangle of stony dirt broken up by tufts of grass and shin-deep watercourses baked dry under the African sun. Spectators sat under mango trees and baobabs, beyond which stood St Peter’s, an improbably vast church, as big as Winchester Cathedral. The Scottish missionaries who built it in 1911 imagined God at the centre of island life forever. A hundred years on, it seemed like the ground had shifted.
The two teams were in the bottom half of a league of 12, each representing one of the villages of Likoma Island. Once a way-station for the slave trade, the island is an eighteen-square kilometre chunk of Malawi in Mozambican waters, just off the eastern shore of Lake Malawi. The exclave has no paved roads or power lines; poverty and paradise collide everywhere. Its population of 10,000 are descended from various groups who have sought refuge on the island from wars on the mainland over the past two centuries. At least a thousand of them turned out for the match. Mostly it was a blizzard of long-balls and counter-attacks; possession was impractical on so capricious a pitch. Every 50-50 challenge felt like life-or-death.
I can’t remember the score or who won. What stuck firmest in my memory were the children. In my mind’s eye, they were seeds of a future World Cup story. At the final whistle, dozens of boys, younger than Tazizwa, arms in the air, ran feverishly onto the pitch. Some juked and passed unseen defenders, others scored invisible goals. A few cartwheeled. For a brief moment they were no longer on the island.
My own country, Canada, is not considered a footballing nation. “Soccer” has a lot of competition from other sports. Canada qualified for the World Cup – once. The team put on a masterly defensive display in each of its three matches at the 1986 finals in Mexico. Famously, Canada conceded just one goal against an exquisite French side that included Les Bleus greats Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse. Despite such heroics, the team exited the tournament after the first round, winless and goalless. No Canadians have played in football’s global show-piece since. But the World Cup that mattered most to Canada, in the mythic sense, wasn’t Mexico.
Just off the Piazza Navona in Rome, there was – and maybe still is – a small pizzeria dominated by a wall-size photograph of a huge street celebration sparked by Italy’s triumph over Germany in the 1982 World Cup final. The caption proclaimed the gathering to be the largest of its kind in the world. I guessed it was in Milan or Rome, then read the small print: Toronto.
On 11 July 1982 upwards of half a million Canadians of (mostly) Italian ancestry flooded onto the streets of Canada’s largest city to revel in the Azzuri’s victory. The day is now part of Toronto’s folklore and helped fix multiculturalism into Canada’s national identity. Images of a sea of Italian flags and the palpable bonhomie the World Cup victory created across the city gave expression to a somewhat radical vision of Canada – a country so dependent on and influenced by immigration – as a place where people could not only celebrate different heritages but were encouraged to do so. This idea became enshrined in Canadian law a few years later. To this day, first-time tourists arriving in Toronto, and to a lesser extent other Canadian cities, during the period of a World Cup, could be forgiven for not knowing which country they were in. Reflecting on that summer day in 1982, football writer John Doyle averred that ‘across all the divides in the world and across the multiple ethnic neighbourhoods of Toronto, soccer is the lingua franca, the link that fastens us together.’
Except, of course, when it does the opposite.
Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka are unlikely to be spotted in a Belgrade bar any time soon. The two midfielders for Switzerland marked their respective goals against Serbia in their group match by locking their open hands together at the thumbs and flapping their fingers. Bespoke goal celebrations are often incomprehensible to fans and opposing players (Samuel Umtiti’s jig after scoring against Belgium?!). But there was nothing ambiguous about the Swiss pair’s. Their gesture was meant to represent the two-headed eagle on Albania’s national flag. Both players are of Kosovar-Albanian heritage, whose families suffered in the former Yugoslavia at the hands of Serbian nationalists. Had they gone over to the Serbian fans after scoring and instead showed them the middle finger, it would have been less provocative. Football and war have form in the Balkans.
Shaqiri and Xhaka stoked the same flame that burnt the Yugoslav state to the ground in the 1990s. Both were born just after the infamous match their gesture evoked so readily: Red Star Belgrade versus Dinamo Zagreb, 13 May 1990. In footballing lore, it is known as “the day the war started”. Bloody clashes between opposing sets of fans forced the match, held at Maksmimir stadium in the (now) Croatian capital Zagreb, to be suspended. Yugoslavia was then backsliding rapidly into the nationalist abyss. Outside the stadium today sits a memorial to the match depicting three soldiers. It is dedicated “to the fans of the club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground”.
In the late 1980s, Yugoslavia’s domestic league was becoming increasingly contested terrain, on which supporters of clubs encouraged violence against other teams’ fans on an ethnic and national basis. When the war broke out a year later, football fans were among the first to band together in opposing paramilitary units.
The subsequent break-up of Yugoslavia – which separated Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Slovenes and so on into different countries – deprived football of a wondrously talented national team. The players on the Yugoslav squad that swept all before them at the Fifa World Under-20 championship in 1987 would have been at their peak, or near enough, at the World Cup finals held in the USA seven years later. Katanec, Stojkovic, Mihajlovic, Boban, Suker… all part of one side! But the footballing gods didn’t have their way. With the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 90s, the team split up.
When Modric, Rakitic and the other Croatian players take to the pitch on Sunday for the final against France, my mind is sure to drift, if only for a few seconds, and picture the greatest World Cup team that never was.
Croatia is the antithesis of what its opponent in the World Cup final supposedly represents. This has nothing to do with how Croatia plays football or the spirit of the team, which has been without equal in this year’s tournament. Rather, it’s about blood and belonging. About 90% of Croatia’s population of 4-million is ethnically Croat and Roman Catholic. It is the least ethnically diverse country to emerge from the former Yugoslavia. The national squad more or less reflects this reality. Anthropologically-minded scribblers might find in Croatia an echo of the game’s primordial instincts.
The far right in France dream of this kind of Les Bleus. A French team comprised primarily of sons of first-generation immigrants – three-quarters and mostly from Africa – is their worst nightmare. Who are they backing on Sunday night, I wonder?
Their success in this World Cup, like their triumph 20 years ago, has been described as a “win for the ‘French model’ of diversity and inclusion” and a powerful antidote to a “narrow idea of European identity”. That the 19-year old French forward Kylian Mbappé, the best teenage footballer in the world, has a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother, could hardly be more perfect. The turbulent debate on immigration and identity globally has been the backcloth for some of this tournament’s most compelling storylines. For fans in Africa, the desultory record of its national sides has been partly ameliorated by the sight of so many players of African ancestry excelling in Russia. The side which tugged most strongly at Africans’ heartstrings used to be Brazil, their cousins, who always played enthrallingly, and had Pele. But the likes of France and Belgium, another dazzling team with plenty of roots in Africa, may have supplanted the yellow jerseys.
The day before he played his first game in Russia, Belgium’s star striker, Romelu Lukaku, struck an exalted note on these issues in a deeply personal contribution to The Player’s Tribune, a media platform which connects players to their fans. Lest anyone assume that (especially) European countries fielding World Cup teams that represent, indeed over-represent, immigrant communities implies that their place in society is secure and uncontested, Lukaku tells it how it is. His piece, which he titled I’ve got some things to say, circulated so widely that by the time his performance finally faltered in the semi-final against France, no fan could bring themselves to criticise him. I could not do justice to its power and urgency, so best read it yourself (if you’ve not already).
With only a few days to go before Sunday’s final, I suspect I am not alone in feeling less exuberant than the occasion merits. Melancholy encroaches fast when the end is nigh. Four years is a long time to wait before that dizzy irrationality takes hold again, when the fate of nations you have no tangible link to can determine your mood for days.
But now there is a new dimension to my waiting: as one of the co-hosts with Mexico and the US, Canada is guaranteed a spot in the 2026 World Cup! What might football say about the state of our world eight years from now? Mercifully, Donald Trump will not be around to somehow spoil the party. Or will he? Hopefully, African teams will get their act together by then. I may have watched some of the players. They were running across a stony field, arms aloft. DM
Dr Terence Mcnamee is a global fellow of the Wilson Centre based in Johannesburg. Previously he was the deputy director of the Brenthurst Foundation. In 2013 he was an adviser in Malawi to its then-president, Joyce Banda.