Soccer Explains Nothing

Stop looking to the World Cup for history lessons. It’s just a game and, frankly, that’s good enough.


One night in Johannesburg during the World Cup, I was chatting with an English friend over a bottle of South African red about the impending England-Germany game. My friend is an august figure, a well-traveled political commentator, never happier than when weighing the chances of war in Iran. At first, he made some ironic remarks about the England team. But pretty soon, he couldn’t resist the temptation: He stuck out his arms in imitation of the outstretched wings of a Royal Air Force plane from World War II. He was an England fan preparing for a game against Germany, and that’s what England fans do.

If you had to pick a game during the 2010 World Cup that looked freighted with political meaning, it was England-Germany. This is still the encounter English fans care about most, and this time again, some fans and newspapers swathed it in the language of conflict. In truth, some treated England’s entire campaign as a reliving of World War II. Even before the England-Algeria game, the Sun newspaper’s headline invoked Winston Churchill: "Their finest hour (and a half)."

All this talk was fodder for wannabe sociopolitical commentators like me. But we shouldn’t be fooled. The teeth have been taken out of the England-Germany rivalry, as out of almost all rivalries in international soccer these days. Back home after a breathless month in South Africa, it’s plain to see: The sorry truth is that the World Cup is losing its geopolitical meaning altogether. To twist the title of Franklin Foer’s famous book: soccer is ceasing to explain the world. There were still some political observations to make about the host country, South Africa, and the winning country, Spain. But for the most part, this tournament exemplified how everywhere on Earth is becoming the same place.

That’s quite a shift indeed, because the World Cup used to be a festival of geopolitics. The tournament began in 1930, just as fascism was getting going. Then, after a decent interruption for World War II, the World Cup resumed in an era of hysterical nationalism. Postwar European countries still nursed resentments — chiefly, against Germany — that came out on the turf. Meanwhile, Latin American countries were often still experimenting with fascism or hypernationalism, sometimes both. When the Africans entered the tournament in the 1970s, their regimes also often sought to milk soccer for national status.

During these decades, geopolitics gave the World Cup spice. And similarly, the World Cup spiced up politics. In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras actually fought a "Soccer War" after playing three keenly disputed qualifying games for the next year’s tournament. For many European countries, the game that truly mattered was the one against West Germany. The Dutch defeat to the Germans in the final in 1974 was certainly Holland’s worst sporting trauma. One Dutch midfielder, Wim van Hanegem, had lost his father, 10-year-old brother, and six other van Hanegems to a wartime bombing of the family’s home village. And the lyrics of Three Lions, the unofficial anthem of English soccer, is mostly about defeats to Germany.

World Cups in these good old days featured all sorts of other bitterness too. Part of hysterical nationalism was the supposition that the other guys cheated. "Animals," England’s coach Alf Ramsey called the Argentines after beating them in 1966. The Argentines and Portuguese later exited that tournament spouting conspiracy theories about the English, whom they still fondly imagined to rule the world. In the 1982 cup, Polish fans under Soviet rule carried a banner to the Poland-USSR game reading only "Solidarnosc," a reference to the Polish trade union that had been banned after Poland’s communist rulers had imposed martial law six months earlier. Sweetly, Poland managed to tie — enough for them to advance to the next round. As Holland’s coach, Rinus Michels, supposedly said (though in fact never did), "Football is war."

No longer. And certanily not in South Africa. Few foreign fans flew down for the tournament, but many of those who did came from new soccer countries, short on ancient bitter rivalries. Fans of opposing teams sat happily side by side in the stands, blowing vuvuzelas in unison (if not in harmony), often after having swapped scarves. When the TV cameras lit upon them, they waved like starry-eyed fans at the NBA All-Star game.

The World Cup has gone from nationalist frenzy to universal carnival, a sort of cheesy "We Are the World" video brought to life. Nobody seems to hate Germany anymore, and anyway, the country had the most multicultural team in the tournament. There were barely any colonial occupiers playing (a U.S.-Afghanistan game would have been interesting but the Afghans have never yet played a World Cup). The only crazed hypernationalist state represented at all was North Korea. Pyongyang reportedly sent Chinese people to South Africa to pose as North Korean fans, but aside from that, barely a peep was heard from the Hermit Kingdom, especially after it lost 7-0 to Portugal. No country exited this World Cup crying conspiracy.

So why have the geopolitics drained from soccer? First, because the world has changed. The era of dictatorships, hypernationalism, country vs. country wars, and festering resentments held over from World War II is passing. Most wars today are civil wars.

Crucially, soccer is changing too. The World Cup used to set different national styles against each other. The Dutch attacked, the Italians defended, the Germans played badly and won, the Latin Americans dribbled, and the English huffed and puffed and screwed up. Inevitably, everyone felt that everyone else’s style was somehow immoral, even evil.

These days, however, the World Cup rewards globalization, and the homogenization of styles helped make this a post-nationalist World Cup. Everyone plays much the same way now (with the exception of the English, who still huff and puff and screw up.) Teams like the United States, Paraguay, and Japan have doubled down on boring, athletically honed, well-organized Western European soccer in recent years. In South Africa, the Dutch defended, the Germans played well and lost, and the Latin Americans mostly stopped dribbling. The key to success in modern soccer seems to be to dilute your inherited national style. Spain, for instance, won the World Cup playing a version of Dutch passing soccer that had been brought into the country by generations of Dutch players and coaches at clubs in Barcelona. It was the countries that refused to learn much from abroad, countries that still played in distinctive national styles — dumb long-ball England, paceless Argentina — that lost. There was still some nationalism about, but mostly, winning a game doesn’t prove that your race is superior to other races. It’s just a good excuse to dance on the streets.

In fact, the only real exception comes not from any of the top teams but from South Africa itself. It’s becoming a tournament tradition for the host country to go on a voyage of self-discovery. In 2006, for example, Germans used the World Cup to define their own new brand of "carnival nationalism": a way for millions of Germans to gather in public squares chanting, "Deutschland!" without scaring anybody, including themselves.

In 2010, much was made of how the World Cup united South Africans of all colors behind a common project. And it wasn’t all hype. My parents are both from Johannesburg, and a 70-something aunt of mine there, a conservative lady, told me that when she drove around town in her car with South African flag, black people would cheer her on with cries of, "Gogo, gogo!" ("Grandma, grandma!") For once, almost all south Africans were cheering for and embracing a shared country.

Certainly, a place as divided as South Africa needed this sort of thing. Still, a bigger legacy of the World Cup there may be black pride. Many South Africans had been nervous about hosting beforehand, partly because the country’s black population had been told for centuries that it wasn’t up to a task like that. Apartheid had proceeded from the notion that blacks were inherently less intelligent than whites. They were educated only for jobs as servants or unskilled laborers. They were educated to lack confidence.

During the World Cup, something changed. I saw it when my newspaper, the Financial Times, gathered five smart South Africans around a table in Johannesburg to argue about the World Cup’s impact on the country. The five were instinctive critics, not flag-wavers. Most were appalled by the money South Africa had wasted on world-class stadiums in non-football-going towns like Cape Town or Nelspruit.

Still, one point kept returning to the conversation: "I think expressly black people feel proud," said the black author and academic William Gumede. "Even if you don’t have a job, even if you don’t have a house, even if the new transport infrastructure is not serving you, there is still that sense of reverence around it." Ferial Haffajee, a newspaper editor of Indian-Malay origin, added: "The subtext of the South African narrative is one of how [blacks] can’t do it, look how they are messing up the government. And in fact, [during this World Cup] I see great moments of pride: We can do it."

Had the World Cup been worth it, we asked them? "I think rationally and fiscally, absolutely not," replied Haffajee. "But emotionally, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world."

It seems that the main geopolitical significance of the World Cup now lies in the logistics of organizing it. The soccer is just for fun (although in truth most of the games were dull). The World Cup no longer means much. And that’s a relief.

Simon Kuper is a Financial Times journalist and coauthor of Soccernomics.