Back in October, I watched the United States men’s national team lose to Trinidad and Tobago and felt heartbreak and dismay as newcomer Christian Pulisic stood in tears after his shot at a World Cup debut slipped away, and veterans like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard struggled to summon post-match words, recognizing the missed chance at the tournament would almost certainly be their last.
Now, coming to the end of what will go down as one of the most exciting World Cups to date and with some distance from the final whistle of that disastrous game, I feel an immense relief at the absence of the United States team.
The world needed a moment without us, barred from the poisonous reach of US politics, and so did I.
With increasing frequency, I awake to reminders that the world as we know it is crashing down around us.
As I instinctively respond to the pings of my cellphone, morning briefings sent down from the newskeeper overlords, I (more often than not) begin my day with a massive pit in my stomach.
In another, I’m afflicted with fear for members of the LGBTQ+ community, friends who in 2018 are still left to question the safety of their love in the face of contestment by the President’s SCOTUS nominee.
As I’m writing this, now, playing in the background, I hear a newscaster report on troubling dialogue from the NATO summit, further isolating the US from the good graces of necessary allies, followed by a story on the border crisis, as families are slow to be reunited, and separated and detained toddlers are called to represent themselves in deportation hearings.
But what does soccer, more specifically the World Cup, have to do with any of this?
To me, soccer has always served as a refuge.
Growing up playing, the game became a getaway and a distraction from the more serious plights of life: the loss of a loved one, difficult relationships, and—as I extended my career beyond youth play to the university level and moved away from home—a channel through which I could momentarily escape the newfound stressors of adulthood.
Boots on, laces fastened; for a full two hours, multiple days a week, I accepted an invitation to clear my mind, step onto a pitch and immerse myself in the game.
Now, since I’ve aged out of college soccer and high-level competition, I’ve found a similar release as an observer.
It’s become rare in the US to turn on a television and avoid the mention of our current administration, but as I and millions of others have sat down to watch game after game, this World Cup, we’ve found a safe space.
Commentary has entirely evaded the mention of POTUS by name. The event, for the most part, has dodged his fixation (it may have regardless; soccer lacks appeal to the short-attentioned), and there’s been no controversial debate re: athletes posing for photos with Ivanka or choosing to forego visits to the White House, as were commonplace during the Olympics in PyeongChang.
This tournament has provided many viewers in the United States an opportunity to step away from the unsettling realities of our dire political climate, 90 minutes at a time, and find untainted joy in the form of play.
It’s been glorious, but let me be clear. This is not, by any means, an assertion that the World Cup has lacked political threads.
Just before its start, The New York Times launched a newsletter devoted to covering “social issues and hidden stories” related to the cup. In the introduction alone, Musa Okwonga describes the tournament’s more significant moments as those that take place beyond the pitch, writing, “It’s about politics, economics, social issues. It’s about race and class and sport history. It’s about corruption and nationalism, fear and joy. It’s about everything.” The contributions to follow were demonstrative of that.
On Wednesday morning, in a thoughtful commentary for Unusual Efforts, Ritika Bhasker wrote of how the undertones of colonialism and racism have plagued the cup and her viewing experience, brilliantly articulating how infuriating it’s been, making points that are crucial to recognize and impossible to contest.
After reading pieces like the above, I feel a sense of guilt and shame for my whimsical consumption of the tournament, and recognize my privilege in having been able to find sanctuary in the play. On the other hand, I know it was necessary.
This troubling period in the country’s history occupies my thoughts more often than not and tugs at my moral heartstrings. At times I find the darkness motivating. “You’re 22 years old, you have a voice, as do your peers, the future will be brighter if you make it that way,” I tell myself.
But in others I feel apathetic, hopeless, bogged down and drained by the climate we’re enveloped in.
That’s why, in watching the World Cup, I have chosen to carve out space for joy and innocence and passion and bliss.
I’ve allowed myself to be overtaken by admiration of form as ball met foot in Benjamin Pavard’s perfectly sliced volley that curved into the side netting from just beyond the box as France took down Argentina in the Round of 16.
I felt shock and excitement and sympathy when Belgium beat Japan on a last minute counter to advance to the quarterfinals after trailing 2-0, marking the 18th goal of the cup scored in second-half stoppage time, an unbelievable number.
And as a young England team advanced over Colombia in penalties, rising above a “curse” that’s spanned more than 20 years, and the nation erupted in a wave of excitement and belief, I reveled in the emotion of the moment and watched seas of fans bounce up and down, fists in the air, passing hugs between strangers.
There were tears, too, equally beautiful. Those shed by a Uruguayan defender in the final minutes of a quarterfinal match as Uruguay trailed France by two, an unforgettable moment of passion and display of love for the game, and by Brazilian fans who realized the country would go another four years without the trophy after Kevin De Bruyne sent a laser into the lower left corner, recognizing the window before it was there like a soccer psychic and putting Belgium up by two going into the half.
With just two games left to play, I feel confident asserting that no previous World Cup has been as exciting as this one for both patrons of the game and casual observers. The quick pace of play has kept viewers engaged, the scores have been phenomenal and the surprises just keep coming.
I needed a light. I found it in this tournament, and I don’t want it to end.
Still, all good things do
So refreshed, revitalized, and with four years until the next World Cup, I am glad to have been able to find a bit of good in a time otherwise filled with overt despair.
Maybe 2022 will be better, both for US soccer and for politics.