Why the World Cup is a game of tribes

The tournament in Russia produced great football, but told us more about national identity and patriotism than about the beautiful game

Features
The photograph that launched a torrent of criticism: German World Cup star Mesut Özil with Turkey’s President Erdoğan (© Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

International football tournaments, for the most part, disappoint. After the heightened anticipation and fanfare of the group matches, the fear of failure — or equally what Freud termed Erfolgsangst (“fear of success”) — can produce less than thrilling football in the knockout phase. Stalemates have over the years been commonplace, even in a World Cup final, as Italians will attest.

In Russia’s World Cup, however, a high tempo was set early and maintained for the duration of the tournament, even if the football at times may have flattered to deceive. The final adhered to sporting cliché by pitting “David” (Croatia) against “Goliath” (France), though, on this occasion, the underdog played the better football only to lose. France, a team for the 21st century with its multicultural makeup, having 17 of a 23-man squad the sons of first-generation immigrants, had given too little (in footballing terms) to gain so much. Even those, who Cassandra-like, had predicted an ill-tempered tournament, fraught with hooliganism, racism and bad sportsmanship, were proved wrong. The 2018 World Cup was an unmitigated sporting success. And yet, there was something far subtler at play rather than the football itself; something revelatory in terms of national identity and patriotism; something in the way these participating countries conducted themselves both on and off the pitch.

Fashioning and consolidating identity through sporting prowess is nothing new: it lies at the heart of the two greatest global spectacles. The symbolism of Greece holding the inaugural Olympics in the closing years of the 19th century allowed the country an entry into the modern world, while attempting to soothe domestic unrest. For diminutive Uruguay, hosting and winning the first World Cup in 1930 was not only a centenary celebration of the country’s first constitution but also sought to establish the country’s credentials on the world stage. Before the 1924 Olympics, Uruguay’s minister plenipotentiary to Berne, Enrique Buero, realised that football success had a far greater impact off the pitch: “A victory for the Uruguayan team . . . would have great repercussions in the sporting world, which nowadays links all the politicians and leaders of these old societies.” After Uruguay defeated Switzerland in the gold medal match, Montevideo’s El Día stated: “You are Uruguay . . . the symbol of that little dot, nearly invisible on the map . . . which has been getting larger, larger, larger.”

Uruguay’s sporting prowess, in spite of its small population, was an example that a nascent Croatia might follow. During the 1990s, Franjo Tudjman, the country’s first president, had sought to conflate ideas of nationhood and sport. “Football victories shape a nation’s identity as much as wars do,” stated Tudjman, believing Croatia’s athletes to be its best ambassadors. It was an idea not dissimilar to one held by the Marxist historian C.L.R. James, who believed sport could gain a people (in his case West Indians) “public entry into the comity of nations”.

These national heroes were especially useful in a crisis, employed by politicians as a patriotic lodestone. Unfortunately, sporting success alone could not allay all the country’s problems. By the time Croatia had started their 2018 World Cup campaign, their most influential and talented player, Luka Modrić, had been accused of perjury during the trial of Dinamo Zagreb’s quondam chief executive, Zdravko Mamić, who was convicted of transfer irregularities and corruption. Having been handed a six-and-a half-year prison sentence, Mamić fled to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In spite of these difficulties, the Adriatic republic managed to defeat Argentina, Russia and England on its way to the World Cup final. Although the team had enjoyed the goodwill of being the perennial underdog, success had failed to mask a darker nationalistic side. After the quarter-final against the host nation, the Croatian defender Domagoj Vida posted a video of himself shouting “Glory to Ukraine!” on Instagram. It was not the first time this slogan had been used: during the Second World War the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), some of whom were Nazi collaborators, had employed it; so too had those decrying Russian aggression in the region. On returning to Zagreb after the final, the team invited Marko Perković, the frontman of the heavy metal band Thompson (a reference to the submachine gun), to join them on stage. Ever the polarising figure, Perković has not been afraid to use Ustaša (the Croatian fascist movement dissolved in 1945) allusions in his act. Unsurprisingly, his concerts have been banned across Europe.

For the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic the homecoming instilled a sense of pride. She also professed to enjoy some of Perković’s songs. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Grabar-Kitarovic said, “I truly hope that we will use this moment of optimism and self-confidence in Croatia, this belief that we can truly stand shoulder to shoulder with the world’s best . . . to put wind in the sails of the reform process.” That the country’s moment of triumph had manifested itself in a certain right-wing symbolism was not lost on many commentators. Croatia’s identity and its most inviolable elements continued to be constructed within the crucible of international football.

Few could have foretold Germany’s early exit from the tournament. After all, Germany had been the most successful country in the history of the World Cup, more so than Brazil given the number of times the national team had finished in the top four. After an opening defeat to a buoyant Mexico, an abject performance against South Korea sent Germany to the bottom of the group and out of the tournament.

The pleasure with which Germany’s demise was greeted was not unexpected. The British press were given once again licence to run headlines with a touch of light-hearted xenophobia. The Sun produced “Schadenfreude” with its accompanying definition for those unfamiliar with the compound noun; the Daily Mail offered advice with the legend “Get your towels on a sunbed, Germans are starting their holidays early after World Cup humiliation . . . It’s Wunderbar”; while the Daily Star opted for “Don’t mention the VAR”, a reminder for those who had forgotten the Daily Mirror’s chauvinistic 1996 headline “Achtung Surrender! For you, Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over”. As so often is the case, English patriotism would be articulated through a collective belief of being superior in battle, victorious in war. The disparagement of other nations — so often the hallmark when England progressed in any tournament — was evident when Colombia was drawn against England. The Colombian ambassador to the Court of St James’s was disappointed at the Sun’s weak joke at his country’s expense: “As 3 Lions face nation that gave world Shakira, great coffee and er, other stuff, we say . . . GO KANE!”

England may have felt they had the right to crow the loudest but they were just one country among many that had been historically undone by German footballing efficiency. German defeat, albeit meted out by an East Asian nation with little in the way of a footballing pedigree, was seen as a victory in its own right, somehow assuaging the fear a great rival might succeed where one might fail. When England began to win well, precipitated by a 6–1 victory over a brutish Panama, it was telling how a nation began to believe in its own destiny, sung to the irritatingly catchy “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)”.  This time, the ubiquity of the Cross of  St George, all too often a symbol of promise unfulfilled, became emblematic of victory. (Successful football tournaments tend to expunge any disconcerting associations, right-wing or otherwise, that the standard may acquire.) How had these patriotic feelings, having lain dormant between World Cups, risen to the surface so quickly? It was interesting just how little it took.

For Germany, another European nation uneasy with its identity, failure was revelatory in a way victory could never have been. The country’s early exit revealed not only an innate intransigence by not dismissing its manager, Joachim Löw, but also a Janus-like attitude to immigration.

Shortly before the start of the tournament, two German players of Turkish heritage, Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündoğan, had been photographed with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The German Football Association (Deutscher Fußball-Bund, or DFB) would not endorse the photographs, claiming that their players were unaware of the symbolism attached. The talented Özil had long been singled out for his tendency to disappear during club and international matches, his reserved demeanour mistaken for lack of passion. Germany’s poor performance now made him a target, drawing criticism from the press and abuse — at times openly racist — from the public.

Only after the end of the tournament and a period of quiet reflection, did Özil offer up his own apologia and resignation from the national team on Twitter. He wrote of having “two hearts, one German and one Turkish” and how “not meeting with the President would have been disrespecting the roots of [his] ancestors.” He took aim at DFB president Reinhard Grindel with the line: “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

The Özil affair had started to resemble a scapegoating ritual: that ceremony of purification that had so often been performed in medieval Germany. It once again highlighted issues of poor integration and the country’s strained relationship with its Turkish population. Even changes in citizenship law — Germany had for too long practised jus sanguinis (right of blood) rather than jus soli (right of soil) — had not fully engendered a sense of feeling German. In the intervening 33 years since investigative journalist Günter Wallraff published his groundbreaking book Ganz Unten (The Lowest of the Low) on the plight of Germany’s immigrant community, little seemed to have changed.

If this World Cup had cast Özil as its Judas, then England would provide their manager as a Christ-like figure. In Gareth Southgate, thoughtful, articulate, youthful and emotionally intelligent, England had found a redemptive figure. He was now imbued with saviour-like characteristics; he became the manager the country had always wanted. Having missed a penalty in the shootout against Germany at Euro ’96, Southgate now showed compassion by comforting Mateus Uribe, one of two Colombians to share a similar ignominy.

France’s path to victory, which to the keener observer might have seemed less than inspired, offered a glimpse of what a multicultural future might hold. At the Nelson Mandela annual lecture, former US President Barack Obama was minded to say, “Just ask the French football team that just won the World Cup . . . Not all of those folks looked like Gauls to me. But they’re French. They’re French. Embracing our common humanity does not mean that we have to abandon our unique ethnic and national and religious identities.” In the post-match press conference, the French forward Antoine Griezmann draped himself in a Uruguayan flag, a gesture to his Uruguayan teammates at Atlético Madrid. The Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez, for so long international football’s miscreant, took a somewhat obdurate stance in relation to the question of nationality when Uruguay played France earlier in the tournament: “As much as [Griezmann] says that he’s half Uruguayan, he’s French and doesn’t really know what it is to feel Uruguayan. He doesn’t understand the dedication and effort needed to succeed in football with such a small population . . . we feel differently.” For Suárez, identity was not about choice. George Orwell would no doubt have disagreed, maintaining that combative sport like football was “bound up with the rise of nationalism . . . with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige”.

With all its fleeting disappointments and consequential victories, the World Cup usually tells us more about identity and nationalism than it does about the beautiful game itself. Wearing those tribal colours on and off the pitch still gives us a sense of place, of belonging to a community, of being who we are, and not that forced modern condition of being who we ought to be. Perhaps there is something in the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s oft-quoted maxim: “Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are.” After all, he did come from that small country that gave the world its first World Cup.