The 78,000 spectators at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium were joined by a recognizable trio as they watched the Russian national team put five past Saudi Arabia on the opening day of the 2018 World Cup. Naturally, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was one of the three, joined by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The trio served as an official symbol of this edition of the World Cup and an inescapable reminder that sport, and football in particular, is inextricably linked to politics. The World Cup, like other events that call for the participation of national teams, is especially connected to the countries represented; a large part is by design. Teams are not referred to by a longer and more specific name, only by the name of the country they represent; national flags are displayed on the field before each match; national anthems are played while the cameras pan players’ faces. Ultimately, the baggage of these countries is something inherently attached to the national team.
A reminder of this baggage showed itself early in the tournament, after Switzerland’s 2-1 victory over Serbia. FIFA considered banning Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka for making the double-headed Albanian eagle with their hands during their goal-scoring celebrations; both players have ties to Kosovo and used the gesture to reinforce these roots. The organization also fined the Serbian FA for political chants, and coach Mladen Krstajić for post-game comments mentioning war crimes. In total, six different disciplinary proceedings were opened as the tensions of the former Yugoslavia took center stage.
However, the tournament’s connections to international politics go deeper than just being used as a tool for possible professional provocation on the world’s stage. The World Cup encourages patriotism and expression of national identity, which allows politicians, players, coaches, and fans to dissect small and large actions. Naturally, those displays can take on different meanings for each member of the audience.
Sometimes, that means curating an identity to show the rest of the world. The earliest days of the 2018 World Cup saw Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic and well-known human rights abuser, made headlines after welcoming the Egyptian national team to his part of Russia. He was particularly obsessed with Mohamed Salah, who he forced to take pictures with him and eventually awarded an honorary citizenship of Chechnya. As Karim Zidan wrote for Foreign Policy:
This newfound sporting connection between Chechnya and Egypt is the latest evidence of Kadyrov’s growing ambitions in the region and the broader Muslim world, and of his increasing use of sports to further his political interests at home and abroad — including by building direct diplomatic relations between Chechnya and foreign governments and by increasing foreign direct investment in the republic.
He joined a long list of politicians who have blatantly used athletes and sport in general to advance their own political agendas. He certainly found the publicity he was seeking, though not the legitimacy he craved.
More frequently, though, the connection between the World Cup and national identity is revealed by local attitudes. Such is the case for the 2018 England squad. Gareth Southgate’s team may have been dubbed “the new England” as they bucked the trend of failure in knockout matches, but it is the comparison of the makeup of the squad to modern England at large that tells a larger story. Southgate certainly had that in mind when he told ITV after after the team’s Round of 16 victory:
We’re a team with our diversity and our youth that represent modern England. In England we’ve spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what out modern identity is. I think as a team we represent that modern identity and hopefully people can connect with us.
For Southgate and many others, modern England is racially diverse, a reflection of the immigrants that settle in the country. However, in Brexit-era Britain, it is just as easy to find those interpret “modern England” as Harry Kane, the poster boy for this English team. The young captain, whose individual success continues to grow, exerts a certain influence over the country. To many, he is a humble man who cares for only football and his family. He presents himself without flash and has no tattoos, an odd obsession amongst the nation’s tabloids.
Then again, so is their fascination with Raheem Sterling.
The midfielder is arguably an equally talented player; however, he has hardly been embraced like Kane. In Sterling we see how racism can tarnish one’s reputation, as inking one’s body and spending too much—or not enough—money are depicted as criminal activities in the tabloids. The discriminatory treatment of Sterling (and other black players) and the fetishization of Kane reflects what some want modern England to be: white like Kane, not black like Sterling.
This purification, almost deification, of Kane, and therefore England, reflect how some in the country view the rest of the world. One of the talking points following England’s Round of 16 encounter with Colombia was the chippy nature of a match that saw a combined 36 fouls committed.
It was easy for many, including The Guardian’s Stuart James, to “blame” the quality of the match on “the antics deployed by South American nations” and note that, despite England’s usual perceived cleanliness on the pitch, they have begun to accept this “cancer” as part of the game, as England had committed 13 fouls against Colombia. James concluded, “[T]he next round is a better place to be than the moral high ground.” This interpretation of events argues the rest of the world is finally winning in its attempt to corrupt England, a familiar sentiment. However, it hardly questions the view of England as the golden standard in morality, respect, and decency, a perception common in very few countries, especially countries in which those with brown or black skin are the majority.
Across the Atlantic, many Americans, in the absence of their own team, decided to support their southern neighbors and traditional rivals, Mexico. Former U.S. men’s national team captain Landon Donovan took the lead, explaining his decision to former teammate Carlos Bocanegra in a since-deleted tweet, stating, “Look around our country, are you happy with how we are treating Mexicans? Open your mind, stand for something & remember where you came from.”
There are numerous reasons for Americans to support the Mexican national team; many have roots in the country, and El Tri’s performances against Germany and South Korea certainly showed Juan Carlos Osorio’s men could entertain. Conversely, there are plenty of reasons for Americans to take issue with Donovan’s choice, as Bocanegra and many others did. Respecting a rivalry is natural in sports; disliking a team for purely sporting reasons is not discriminatory behavior. In fact, rivalry in its best sense allows for dramatic tension in sport, and frequently creates an entertaining atmosphere for those participating and neutrals alike.
Donovan’s biggest misstep, though, has nothing to do with the matter of respecting a long-standing rivalry. He defended his choice by explaining Mexican-American relations to a Mexican-American, comments that come from a place of privilege. Donovan was clearly making an attempt to ally himself with Mexican-Americans but instead found himself condescending to a member of that community.
In addition, his argument was based around political issues in the United States rather than the members of the Mexican national team, who are deserving of a name drop from someone proclaiming his support for them. It is crucial to remember that they, along with many others, traveled to Russia for mostly football-related reasons. Without mentioning what he finds likable about the Mexican national team, it seems as if Donovan’s support was not about the team itself, but derived from some idea about what supporting the team represents. Ultimately, while it may not be difficult to guess that Mexican-Americans are unhappy with current US policies, Donovan projected his beliefs onto a group of people without considering their own thoughts, their own choices, their own identities.
This is not to suggest Donovan should necessarily “stick to sports,” as that requires politics to be eliminated entirely when it comes to competitions. However, as society desperately searches for heroes and villains in sports and elsewhere, considering the individual members of each team is necessary. That requires seeing players off the pitch as well as on it, viewing them as human beings instead of just vehicles for our enjoyment.
The need to separate the good guys from the bad can prompt people to look at individual personalities just as much as they do talent. Salah is highly regarded by many for this reason; he was not only one of the most productive forwards of the previous Premier League season, but has been described as “one of football’s nice guys.” Conversely, Dele Alli might be complimented on his footballing abilities, but has caught flack for a tendency to dive and, on one occasion, making parenting harder by encouraging children to play video games. If we’re already making sporting matters about personality traits that are arguably irrelevant to the play on the pitch, it is certainly not much more of a stretch to look at players’ political beliefs and actions. The players should bear the responsibility of understanding the politics of specific situations, particularly because they have a certain amount of influence on both the situations themselves, and how others might interpret them.
Such influence is evident when players’ actions and current political situations come together. For example, Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan personally have little to do with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s oppressive policies, but their photo op with the Turkish president put them in a position where they likely needed to have evaluated the context and the consequences. Gündoğan and Özil in particular had been celebrated in Germany as proof that inclusivity works for all involved, but Erdoğan is no champion of inclusivity. The situation had “thrown up questions and invited misunderstandings,” according to Steffen Seibert, spokesperson for German chancellor Angela Merkel. The situation also resulted in many using those pictures, and Germany’s performance at the World Cup, to abuse Özil, as he stated he is “a German when we win, and an immigrant when we lose.” The words were part of his statement on his reasons for leaving the Germany national team after 92 appearances, writing “I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect.”
Clearly, there are distinctions to be made between teams, individual players, and the countries they represent, but sometimes it is not all that easy to discern those distinctions. The United States, for example, has been in the public eye for the entirety of President Donald Trump’s year and a half in charge for disregarding the rights of others in small and large ways. That leaves many fans of the national teams with a dilemma, and while dumping a national team is an option, it may not be a realistic or desired one.
The solution might be similar to how Americans in general reconcile their feelings for the current administration with their feelings for their country. It requires looking for something or someone worth celebrating; Megan Rapinoe, so far the only national team player to kneel for the anthem and one of several vocal LGBTQ+ rights advocates, is an obvious candidate when looking for the good in the United States at large, and in U.S. Soccer in particular. Wanting her and her teammates to succeed does not have to equal supporting the the people in charge of the United States, the country’s policies, or even the country itself.
Ultimately, almost everything worth enjoying about the World Cup is embedded in a deeper political context. For many Brazilians, supporting the national team calls for national pride that they no longer have. Iran’s World Cup campaign began with visiting female fans demanding to be let into stadiums back home, and their wish finally being granted. And as the likes of N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, and Kylian Mbappé proved crucial to France winning its second World Cup title, it is hard to ignore the country’s past colonization and how tensions that began decades ago still impact French society.
Appreciating the World Cup, and football in general, requires an acceptance that politics will always play a role. That means we must alter how we enjoy players, teams, and the organizers of such tournaments. It will not stop us from gluing our eyeballs to screens around the world as we wait to find out the winner of each match and tournament. Yet we must watch the action somewhat differently; talent is undeniable, but what lies behind the talent should certainly be considered. Politics should help us shape our perceptions of these players, these teams, these organizations. Ignoring them is irresponsible; it ignores the entire context of the sport.