FIFA World Cup 2022: United by spectacle

It was the summer of 2014. The men’s World Cup, then in the knockout stages, was thriving in the Amazon, in what many believe to be football’s adopted homeland: Brazil. I was on an early morning walk in the deep end of South Kolkata. At the end of my usual rounds, I was standing next to a large billboard. It was a World Cup game that neighborhood clubs put together with sheets of chart paper, colored handmade rags, sketching pencils, and oodles of enthusiasm. I was joined by an elderly, middle-aged man, emaciated and dressed in casual, minimalist clothing. He studied the board like a chess game, turned to me and said: ‘What are the chances of Messi making it to the final? If he doesn’t win a World Cup for Argentina, he’ll never match Maradona.” Over the next few minutes we did some collaborative permutations. “The way I see it, he has a chance, don’t you think?” he said before turning to say goodbye. Only now did I realize that it was a rickshaw puller who had stopped on the way to the box office to take a close look at the state of the competition. Messi made it to the final in Brazil, losing to Germany and leaving himself and much of the world in tears. Obviously the man standing next to me knew the game better than anyone.

In Bengal, Kerala and Goa, this is not an exceptional or dramatic event. Because no other global sport or competition touches people on the streets like the soccer World Cup in these countries. Across much of Bengal, seeing a touch of color – the green and yellow Canarinho of Brazil, the alabaster Celeste of Argentina, the Rojo Gualda yellow of Spain, the Prussian white (and red, black and gold) of Germany – always in in the heat of the fiery summer (so far) it must be the World Cup. Aside from the annual pageantry of the autumn Durga Puja, this is the only time when the austere austerity of urban Bengal is overwhelmed by a spontaneous burst of pastels.

These are known facts, but they need to be thought through a little more closely. Perhaps because India has never participated in a soccer World Cup; or it is unlikely that this will be the case in the near future. As in some other countries. After all, only 32 nations from FIFA’s 211 member associations are competing. That is indeed 18 more than 193, the number of member states of the United Nations. So, on a good day, nothing is as global as football, which is why developing countries participate in it like nothing else. Critics of the game as it stands (and the event) have taken issue with the game’s capitulation to global capital, the relentless manufacture of fame on the field, the involvement of mobsters and drugs, crowd riots and in the current edition, Qatar’s miserable Balance sheet of human rights, especially the rights of the working class. But any or all of them are unlikely to detract from the beautiful madness that the event will ignite for the next few weeks.

In the coming weeks, those who would strain their own nerves or those of their bosses will go sleepless to work, reschedule appointments filled with travel and new movie starts, parry accusations of domestic neglect, or work their days around the games tonight and become a part of this beautiful madness . In the weeks to come, those wearing the colors of another flag will swear by the jersey of a nation they’ve never visited, rack their brains when a small West African nation misses a set piece, bet on the rise of an Asian obscure Horse or dance to the tunes of samba will knowingly or unknowingly defy the narrow appeals of cheap staged provincialism.

Nothing prepares us like football to share in the torment and ecstasy of another country, a distant people, a nondescript nation. For this reason, football, and football only, helps us think together as a people, as participants in a planetary present, as members of a global community. It is not for nothing that Pelé’s silky feet, Eusébio’s whirling kicks, or Maradona’s piercing dribbles (or airy punches) have historically echoed the heaving, breathless articulation of those millions who live in the shadows. Or migrate to other places. Or live from wage payment to wage payment. In his seminal Soccer in the Sun and Shadow, Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, after explaining what plagues global soccer, wrote: “On the pitch you still see, if only now and then, an outrageous rascal who runs things puts aside script and makes the mistake of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the spectators in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.” What is that freedom? Who will win if Messi wins? “We all do,” as the man pulling the rickshaw would say. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this man speaks for millions who want to break free from the belligerent, intolerant, border-fetishing propaganda machine known as nationalism.

The author teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi. Views are personal.


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