That was a truly gripping men’s World Cup. I enjoyed watching all the games I could – work depending – and the dramas that unfolded as the weeks went on. The opportunity to watch the best professional men’s players in the world is probably the biggest interest for me, alongside watching how different teams approach the games tactically, psychologically, technically and physically.
The tournament had everything. It had the underdogs story, the introduction of VAR as a crucial talking point, the inability for the players considered the best in the world to shine like they do for their clubs and obviously England’s success engrossing a nation.
I want to look a bit further, and critically, at the tournament and explore a few key talking points.
Teamwork and Collectivism
For me, the tournament epitomised the concept of the individual as part of a collective rather than the individual over the collective: the inability for Messi and Ronaldo to single handedly take their teams through the knock-outs, and not even score in the knock-outs to break their own bizarre record on this (given their achievements); the success of Sweden without Ibrahimovic; the attitude and performance (being the crucial word here) of Neymar not being able to overpower a phenomenal Belgium team (those counter attacks!) and for the winner of the Golden Ball to be the player that was during the tournament the symbol for the collective, especially in how he never stopped working and running despite his ability and talent. As a culture, we are obsessed with comparing, with the aim of finding out who or what is ‘better’, but I enjoyed watching a World Cup that was more concerned with recognising how systems worked – this relates to England too, which was clearly influenced by the success of teams like Manchester City – as shown in the final, with Croatia in a more enjoyable attacking sense, and France in a defensive and counter-attacking master-class sense.
Nationalism and Patriotism
Sport can be a powerful platform for encouraging social change and raising awareness of issues, which is something Pussy Riot tried to achieve through their direct action at the World Cup final against human rights violations and abuse of power within Russia. Politics is everywhere, and affects everything, whether people want to admit it or not. The sense of place and community, relating to national identities, obviously is a big part of this – but debates around nationalism, patriotism and football aren’t straight forward. The World Cup can bring people within a nation together, but we have to be critical of what this means, what we want our nation to represent or what we believe it represents, recognise that this is a political issue and also acknowledge and be aware of the potential for this to be abused – as it has already been historically – and take responsibility for this. Some of these issues are discussed well in this article, with a key part of it included below:
But patriotism need only be worrying when it morphs into nationalism, an ugly brand of politics that is rather different. A patriot can celebrate the things in the country if it isn’t then used to project supremacy over others…Nationalism is something else, when pride and love becomes a hatred of others and a refusal to acknowledge that with every cultural history comes the darker moments that we would rather blot out. A patriot acknowledges that the Empire happened and with it uncountable atrocities. They love Britain but do not use it to demonise immigrants or those who don’t look like them. A nationalist does all of these things and more.
The difference between patriotism and nationalism is important. The World Cup engaged a lot of people in football, a lot who wouldn’t be usually interested too, because people felt a sense of pride that our team was doing well. But you have to be critical. You have to be critical about what being English can represent, the history we have as a country, the history of oppression and colonisation we have imposed across the globe and how our flag can make people feel. Jumping up and down in Ikea when we beat Sweden is more nationalism to me, especially when you consider the tweet Ikea did after the game. Jumping up and down on a taxi and an ambulance is more nationalism to me, it’s taking these feelings of pride in your country to the next level, where respect for others goes out the window. Obviously, not nationalism in its extreme, but its behaviours and attitudes that link into that feeling of supremacy and lack of accountability or respect.
— IKEA UK (@IKEAUK) July 7, 2018
As Lipkis explains, patriotic behaviour at the World Cup doesn’t have to be a 100% positive one either, as it can actually be a trigger for protesting against injustice: Pussy Riot did at this World Cup’s final. Lipkis explains, referencing the Brazil 2014 men’s World Cup:
“Though a different form of nationalism, and unity, Brazilians have come together to protest what they view as rampant waste and corruption.”
I remember being a lot more bothered about whether England men’s national team won or not when I was younger. This is slightly frustrating given that my childhood was basically marked by seeing England under perform at international competitions and feeling perpetually let down and frustrated. However, I find it hard to be as proud or interested now (even though winning a penalty shoot out for us is impressive!) and rather focus on what it means as a nation to do well at such an massive event, with a critical eye. I mean for starters, the national anthem sung at the start of the games is championing the monarchy, something that isn’t exactly a universal value for the nation, as many of us work to further democracy and campaign against unelected officials. But we only have to look at the abuse Corbyn received for not singing the anthem to understand how tied up with nationalism the anthem is. You can’t even begin to critically consider the wording without being considered as a traitor to your country, even though the anthem itself is outdated, and not in touch with modern democracy.
I have read interesting things by people regarding how the World Cup is a way of highlighting the diversity of nations, and I can totally see and appreciate that – especially when you consider the influence of immigration and the high percentage of Muslims within the winning French men’s team and how important it is to recognise that within a context of increasing intolerance and racism in France. It is noticeable that, as Jaishankar outlines in his article, “French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen once called it ‘not a real French team.’”
But I always get a bit uneasy when I see the English flag, it’s taken on far too many negative connotations when it comes to nationalism, right wing agendas and racism (consider some England fans have been accused of performing Nazi salutes at this World Cup). I am also uncomfortable with the dialogue and narratives around England being a great country to be proud of (which I saw many tweet and say), when we have record levels of food banks, people dying through work capacity assessments, an NHS on its knees and an increasing gap between the rich and poor. I know people’s response is “don’t bring politics into it”, but it’s hard not to when considering things such as the anthem directly championing a system of hereditary rule from a Feudal era, contra to democracy.
I think it is interesting to consider this in line with the discussions above regarding such critical thought and protest being rather about patriotism and promoting a place, society and living for all that you can be proud of – protesting against injustice and oppression is a way of trying to create a better country, and world, for all – it’s about caring how you are represented on a national stage and how people living in your country – all people – are treated. It’s about being proud of the good things that make your nation up, such as the NHS, but also being critical and honest about where we are at. These contradictions are talked about in some critical detail in a great article here:
As a woman of colour who fiercely opposes banal nationalism, toxic masculinity, and Britain’s penchant for taking over literally everything – I’ve found myself cheering all of these on. During extra time when the team seemed to be shying away from the tenacious Colombian team who were ready to fight until the end, I texted my friends: “Where is that same energy they used to invade most of the countries in this tournament?” I was willing them to be bullish while also taking the piss. “Serves England right. Terrible at its own game.”
There are interesting arguments about the World Cup being more a symbol of globalisation than nationalism, but even these arguments tend to acknowledge the nationalist limits of the World Cup (see here for instance, and here). As argued in this article, nationalism is a key part of the World Cup:
Whether it’s a country’s desire to show that it can pull off hosting a major international event or a people’s desire to show that they can compete with the world’s superpowers — even if it’s only on the soccer pitch — nationalism is the common thread. The World Cup is intrinsically a nationalistic event, and it has often been exploited for nationalistic or political ends…A 2014 study by Andrew Bertoli, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, considered that nationalism tends to surge in countries that qualify for the World Cup. Looking at data from 1958-2010, Bertoli found that countries whose teams qualified took military action more often — and more violently — than those that did not. Bertoli managed to replicate his findings in other FIFA regional soccer championships.
These are things we can’t shy away from and have to address.
If you are interested, I wrote an article for my MA about the concept of globalisation, which itself is a debatable term, that can be found here.
Russia itself has big problems with gender equality and sexism. Consider the shaming that Russian women have faced for dating visiting fans from other countries, as discussed here. But gender inequality and sexism is something that is a problem for all countries, to varying degrees, including the UK. Even FIFA themselves said that sexism was a massive problem at this World Cup, however, their response has been criticised for being sexist itself:
FIFA, football’s governing body, has acknowledged that sexism is a problem during the World Cup. It recently suggested a few remedies, including making sure that fewer attractive women at football stadiums are shown on TV broadcasts of the matches. One Russian feminist noted that even FIFA’s solution is sexist. “Publicly dividing women into attractive and unattractive ones is as bad as it can get,” Anna Fedorova wrote on Facebook. “In other words, if you are shown on television sitting in the stands, hooray! FIFA has judged you to be unattractive enough.”
Aziz’s article is a great read for understanding how widespread, endemic and serious the sexism in football, worldwide, is – with a summary from it included below:
There was the sexual harrassment of Colombian correspondent Julieth González Therán, Brazilian reporter Julia Guimarães had to move away quickly from a passerby trying to kiss her, with such harrassment being sadly common place for women journalists and women in general…Videos of female fans being asked to repeat vulgar phrases and words with sexual connotations in a foreign language are also doing the rounds on social media…Photo news agency Getty Images published and later deleted an all-female picture gallery titled: “The Hottest Fans” at this year’s World Cup…Jason Cundy, a former Chelsea and Tottenham defender, stirred up controversy for saying that he preferred to “hear a male voice when watching football” and that women commentators are “high-pitched”…British veteran journalist Simon Kelner also criticised women giving their insight into men’s football, saying it is “like getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball”…Fast-food chain Burger King offered a cash reward of three million Russian rubles ($47,000) and a lifetime supply of free Whopper burgers to Russian women who get impregnated by World Cup stars…A month before the start of the World Cup, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) sparked outcry when it released a manual with tips on how to seduce Russian women.
The fact that media reports and people talk as though this is the first time England has reached the semi-finals of a World Cup since 1990, ignoring the women’s bronze achievement in 2015, is one thing – and then when you see people’s responses to this fact (you just need to look on Twitter for this) it becomes even clearer how far we have to go, as people protest that ‘women’s football just isn’t the same, it’s not as good as the men’s you see’… The fact it is called the World Cup, not the men’s World Cup, when ‘women’s’ will be added onto it next year when talking about the competition and the national teams is incredibly important too – a great article on this can be found here.
There was the offside rule explanation for women using shopping as an analogy, then there was the sexism towards female pundits, even from the male pundits on the same show – just look at the treatment of Eniola Aluko for example (see here for more). Also consider how “Of the 16,000 journalists accredited to cover the World Cup in Russia, just 14% are women, according to FIFA” (source here).
There’s then the uncomfortable occupation of public space by groups of men, often shouting very loudly with beer in their hands, with no awareness of how this could be imposing for others. I have seen some argue, ‘don’t tar us all with the same brush, masculinity isn’t the problem, it’s just some idiots.’ I have to disagree. I touched on this in my analysis on the women’s 2015 World Cup:
If we are going to get theoretical about it the theory of a heterosexual matrix is useful as it relates to the idea that sexuality, gender and sex are all ‘naturally’ related. So for instance, women (sex) are feminine (gender) and are straight (sexuality) – when this is broken, so women playing football (wrongly considered masculine) then this breaks this so-called ‘natural’ connection. In fact such a connection is key to so many problems and divisions in society and it is totally socially constructed, it does not exist as a fact.
That’s not to say all men and women act according to this, but it’s important we all acknowledge the existence, dominance and the related problems of such inflexible and damaging pressures and conceptions of sex, gender and sexuality. Femininity is considered ‘inferior’ and ‘weak’, like women, and this argument underpins the sexism towards women’s football as well. There are obviously the problems around big spikes in domestic violence related to football too, with NHS England running a hard hitting campaign during the World Cup highlighting these statistics.
You Must Conform
It got quite oppressive for people who weren’t interested in football or watching the World Cup too. The idea that you weren’t painting a flag on your face and throwing beer in the air whilst watching Kane slot in a penalty created some strange reactions from people, as though it was a national duty to watch England in the World Cup even if you didn’t like football. Much like Christmas, there wasn’t an escape either, with the streets, shops and transport dominated by it – including shops saying they would close early if England made the final. I love football and I loved watching the men’s World Cup, but there has to be some limits on this – no-one is obligated to watch the World Cup and they can’t be bullied into thinking they are letting their country down by not.
I would argue this relates to the debates regarding nationalism and patriotism and the respect we have for others; making people feel like they have to watch a sporting event to show pride, respect and care for their country is nationalism, not patriotism, and has no place in a respectful society. I think it also relates to issues regarding gender equality and sexism, as I have never seen anything like it when it comes to women’s football – there wasn’t the same response, atmosphere and environment when the England women’s team made the semi-finals in 2015 and then won Bronze by beating Germany.
Anyway, it might not be coming home this year, but it’s in France ready for the England women’s team to bring it home at next year’s women’s World Cup.