Eder scored the winner in the 2016 Euros as I was sat in a car, sober and being driven back from a wedding. 1 The idea of celebrating anything other than the end of a major footballing tournament on the day of the final was alien to me, but then again, my team had managed to go from third place in the previous World Cup to morosely sitting at bars, sipping daiquiris they didn’t deserve, and watching France screw up a perfectly good narrative.2
The Netherlands had already given me a taste of a tournament without them in 2002, but I, like everyone else in East and South-East Asia, was swept up in the South Korean team’s bid for glory and barely missed them.
But there was no South Korea in the Euros in 20163 and, with everyone around me full of hope, optimism and beer, I went into that tournament bitter and annoyed. And yet, when the first game actually kicked off and the fever and excitement of football completely swept the world, I forgot to feel bitter and began savouring the fact that I could watch a game without feeling like I was going to throw up.4 The amount of time and energy you can spend on enjoying the sport itself when your nerves aren’t completely frayed definitely feels a lot like a personal victory when most of your football-related memories are punctuated with nausea. In the summer of 2016, I was reminded of the sheer beauty of the game, the heady rush you get even when you’re thousands of miles away from the pitch and from the chanting chorus echoing down at the players.
But this isn’t just another Euro. This is a World Cup. This is the time where everyone in the world5 abandons work and revisits their most ridiculous prejudices to rain abuse at people they’ll never meet.6 And not having your proverbial dog in the proverbial race just means there’s no euphoria that accompanies said dog wiping the floor with the other team. If your team isn’t in a game, you may still leave the pub satisfied that whoever you were rooting for won, but that’s a fleeting feeling. 7 Of course, if you were a Dutch fan watching your team spectacularly crash out of the World Cup qualifiers in 2017, you probably feel a sense of overwhelming relief because now you won’t be relentlessly made fun of when your poor, sick puppy embarrassed you on the global stage.
The Dutch team’s spectacular downturn has been covered in excruciating detail elsewhere. This is the team that reinvented the way the world thought about football, albeit several decades ago. This is also the team that comfortably (and quite violently, in some cases) made it to the semifinals and finals of tournaments more recently. Italy (and Gigi Buffon’s) pain is even more dramatic: the Azzurri have not missed a World Cup in 60 years. And there have been the usual recriminations, national inquiries, and horribly racist newspaper articles8 to accompany all these national tragedies.
But the fact that Dutch fans (and the Italian fans, and the American fans) get to mourn the end of an era and look forward to returning to the global stage as soon as possible is a uniquely Eurocentric privilege. The Dutch and the Italians (and even Team USA) have never been off the global stage for very long and the global ruckus that accompanies any of these teams not showing up to the group stages borders on hysteria, like a European team missing out on its football birthright is a riddle that must be cracked. That’s simply not the case in a lot of the rest of the world 9 where the chance for a shot at the Cup, or even just the opportunity to make it to the knockout stages before your nation’s heart is stomped on by a European star diving in the penalty box 10 is a singular uniting cause because the opportunity is so rare.
Then there’s us—the die-hard football fans who have adopted various European countries as our teams based on tenuous connections11 we have to justify at every opportunity so that we can get a regular taste of that euphoria and nausea. I will probably never know what it’s like to watch the countries where I was actually raised (and the countries I identify with in everything except football) make it into the group stages, let alone lift the Cup, and that’s just something I have to live with. But in October 2017, 95 million people got the chance to say “I’m a Germany12 fan most of the time, but Mo Salah means I get to watch my nation possibly take on Germany;” that feeling must have been out of the world.
So for the rest of us, the fans who aren’t going to take out jerseys out of our closets this summer, but have already carved out seats at the bar where we can grumble about our teams’ spectacular implosions, here are a few productive ways we can kick back and enjoy the World Cup:
- Root for the team that kicked you out, if they made it through. If you’re a Dutch fan, that means Sweden. If you’re an Italian fan, that also means Sweden. Your Sweden starter kit: the national anthem, the national bird, and some key phrases that may help at the bar. Vi ses där.
- Don’t support anyone. Instead, invest your time and energy in donning a disguise and flying to Russia. Once there, you can take in a lot of the sites even without even having tickets to any of the games. You can also take part in local customs, like kicking Sergio Ramos repeatedly.13
- Look to the youth teams of your country for inspiration and run circuits while you bide your time, waiting for the chance to prove yourself and your country’s worth in the next tournament.
- Celebrate dual nationalities and diversity by supporting the team where all the players from your country are playing. Dutch fans, that means you’re supporting Morocco. USA fans, here’s your chance to make a statement and root for Mexico the way our lord and CONCACAF intended.
- Or root for every team that isn’t a regular fixture in the tournament, especially when they’re up against the powerhouses of football. You may end up crushed more often than not14 but there’s always the chance that you (and everyone around you) falls in love with a team that’s holding its own against a powerhouse, or one that makes its World Cup debut by crushing its former colonizer, or even one with the best Twitter following you’ve ever seen. And you might forget to feel bitter about your own team’s enforced no-show and remember that, at the end of the day, it’s the love of the sport that matters.
1 The wedding was lovely, Portugal’s victory was not
2 This is an artist’s depiction and may not reflect reality
3 Chiefly on account of geography
4 It also helped that Iceland beat England and were champions of my heart right then and there
5 This may not be an accurate estimation
6 I really dislike the Portuguese team, okay?
7 And it’s not like you can be smug about it for days to come, either
8 Mario Balotelli doesn’t deserve any of this
9 Barring Brazil and Argentina, of course
10 Or in some cases, not make it because West Germany and Austria are the worst.
11 I was born into my Dutch fandom. I would have picked a better team if I had a choice
12 Or France fan, or an England fan because there’s no accounting for taste
13 This is a little known local custom. Don’t question it.
14 Because there’s nothing good in the world and we should just accept that