The Nation, the Global Game and the Weight of it All

The Nation, the Global Game and the Weight of it All

Germany's Goetze celebrates

For the past month, our eyes have been on the ball. Perfectly round, it flies and falls, across stadium skies through fields of grass, past fast, neon shoes and into goals, from Brazil to where we are. Our eyes follow. From Manaus and Fortaleza in the northern regions, traveling southward through Recife, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, and Rio de Janeiro, near the Tropic of Capricorn, downwards to Porto Alegre. The World Cup has been a feast of the sensory and the dramatic, from the Amazon basin, where bugs abound with sweat, where sometimes torrential rain soaks shoes; and where, last night, near the busied streets of Rio and the ecstatic fun of the Copacabana, the sun set before the Christ the Redeemer Statue, and over the final game. For a month, we have seen the omnipresent national flags worn on people’s clothes and faces, and the victory runs, leaps, and hugs; as well as the tears that give you a sort of palpable agony, in the post-goal and final moments of every match. 

Nearly four million people travelled to Brazil’s twelve host cities, including more than half a million international tourists. Now, with Germany the World Cup victor, the energy unwinds and things begin to unravel. People and teams pull apart. Another kind of spectating and playing waits in the wings—the nation’s teams disintegrate back into club teams. These are the teams that pay the tens of millions for individual players; people they contract, whose expertise attracts nearly year-round viewers across Europe, Latin America, and Africa, as well as Asia and the Middle East. But the international club teams that define the sport don’t puncture the boundaries of the nation to which the sport is fundamentally, phenomenally bound. When Argentina’s Lionel Messi hugs teammates from Barcelona, when Germany’s Mesut Ozil sees friends from Arsenal, the player is still bound to the country—through birth, through colonialism (i.e. Netherlands to Caribbean isles), or both. To “represent” the nation is the player’s work. And it is a heavy weight to carry.

The connections between player, nation, and politics are multiple and complex. For the Brazilian team, which suffered consecutive defeats to Germany and the Netherlands, repercussions of loss reverberate from the players onto those in power. Because of this, political pundits foresee a dim future for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in the October elections. The mood is grim.  Roussef told reporters on Friday: “Soccer doesn’t mix with politics”; and proceeded to sing verses from a samba, “Get up, shake the dust off, get back on your feet.”  Rousseff knows football is political; and it is just as bound to national identity as the samba she sung.[1] In terms of politics: the Brazilian government decided to spend nearly $14 billion dollars of public money—the people’s money—on the games, building infrastructure and soon-to-be-defunct stadiums—rather than on social services. Those Brazilians living in back-breaking poverty were doubly harmed by this distribution of funds. A quarter million people, mostly in Sao Paulo, Rio, and Porto Alegre have been forcibly removed from their homes.  Eviction notices, police force, and blackmailing have been part of the violent assault against adequate housing and human rights. The poorest of Brazilians have not only suffered the absence of government where they needed it most; but the presence of government where it was not warranted. Both policies have been brutal. Perhaps, as Rousseff said, soccer doesn’t mix with politics—at least not when the political is employed as violently as it has.

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi (R) Bound to the national politics of the game is national identity. When the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, congratulated her team’s players last night, that was just another dimension of how the men in the jerseys, in this case Germany, really do represent Germany. The German fans in the Maracanã stadium, faces painted, flags up, with smiles and arms waving, embodied the popular aspect of the people’s identification with the nation. Mario Götze’s goal, scored in the final moments after 110 minutes of intense play, made this festival of colors, joy, and showmanship possible. Argentina had missed three very clear shots at the goal (first with Gonzalo Higuaín, then Lionel Messi, and finally Rodrigo Palacio). Loss was written on the bodies of Argentina’s players and fans alike, black and blue. These ties—between player, state, fan (or citizen)—are historic and constantly, actively, reinforced by such public demonstrations. They also extends outwards to (inter)national politics and (inter)national histories.[2]

After the U.S. exit from the World Cup, Wall Street Journal’s Almar Latour wrote an article entitled “Why the U.S. Should Support the Netherlands for the Rest of the World Cup.”  Latour’s good-natured article satirizes the nationalist, often irrational, or political incentives that get us cheering for some teams while booing for others. Latour humors the “Dear American Soccer Fan,” giving reasons for intra-national allegiance: declaring “our flags have the same colors”; offering examples of linguistic similarity: “the word ‘Yankee’ very likely derived from Dutch”; and conjuring shared history: “Like you, the Netherlands has had fights with Belgians and lost. Granted, ours was in the 1830s while yours was just Tuesday.” Humor aside, these are the kinds of things that can determine allegiance, for instance, when “your” team is out and you need another to pick.

What has been illustrative is Brazil’s experience of defeat. And the media’s representation of the meaning of that defeat. There has emerged a shared language to explain the Germany-Brazil game (7-1) that some are naming “the Mineiraço,” an event that now succeeds “the Maracanazo” in 1950, when Uruguay defeated Brazil in the tournament’s final. Shame, humiliation, disgrace. Forget, remember. Mourning. These are the words being used to explain what has happened. Practically speaking, Brazil put forth in this World Cup one of the worst teams in its history (for reasons that Brazil’s footballs officials need to investigate and remedy); and Germany represented one of the team’s first formidable opponents. Luck had been on Brazil’s side until they reached the semi-finals. The reality of poor play punctured the national spirit.

There is a weight to it all. A heaviness that first gets projected onto the players, representing the nation-in-loss and mourning. Brazil’s striker, Fred (Frederico Chaves Guedes), explained the experience of the Germany game as “a scar which will remain with us for the rest of our lives.” His teammate Hulk (Givanildo Vieira de Sousa) claimed the loss was due to a “blackout”, calling the day one “to forget.” As Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho put it: ““In 50 years’ time, kids will [still] know that Brazil lost at home 1-7 to Germany.”  Beyond play, of course, are the grim finances of it all—the billions of dollars, spent without regard for where it was needed (social services) and in violation of human rights. Clearly, there is a lot for the Brazilian government, the Brazilian Football Confederation, and the people, to work through.

The game as it is—single kicks, slips, misses, and makes are encapsulated in the immortal. They sit in viewer’s minds and roll off their tongues as experiences that were had individually (“I was completely gutted in ‘98”); and collectively, in the imagined nation-state kind of way (“Our nation is hurt.”) Contingencies become statistics. And sometimes, luck gets enshrined as superiority. The experience of the game, as it builds up minute by minute, sometimes rolling into the dramatic over-times and penalty shoot-outs, is embedded in history as much as it is a process of history-in-the-making. The common, avid viewer of the sport is a rolodex of trivia, bathed in firsts, lasts, and futures. Indeed, the pivotal moments of each game are part of a larger process of national story-telling and self-understanding. Individual and collective memory are continuously updating the narrative of the nation via the team—where it stands, where it’s headed, what it has accomplished, and what it needs to rectify, often, because the pain of the loss, magnified and refracted through the heart and flesh of the people, is as unbearable as it is powerful, a mandate for a next time, a better time.


[1] A note about terminology: Writing this from England, where I’ve lived for five years, and seen two World Cups, I’m choosing to refer to the sport of “soccer” as football, as they do here.  Since the game exists in form differently here than it does in the USA—for the purposes of this post, I refer to the game as such because football is different from soccer, in what it means for people and nation, historically and today.

[2] While greatness inspires consensus, different people from different countries write their own version of events. For the Dutch, who invented the seminal, tactical theory of “Total Football” (totaalvoetbal), wherein “any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in the team”; and who, like Brazil, have produced some of the world’s most beautiful play and players, including Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Basten, and Dennis Bergkamp—there is the common saying: “Football is 90 minutes and at the end the Germans win.” (Or, as England’s Gary Lineker has put it: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”) Having made it to three World Cup finals, and always a favorite in the knockout rounds, the Dutch have never won. Loss has become common experience.

2 responses

  1. And why is THE JUNTO devoting space to the World Cup? I thought I could escape the obsession on my favorite early-Republic blog, but no.

    There is no escape; there is no cure.

    RBB, taking refuge in R. R. Palmer’s THE AGE OF THE DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION (new ed., with new introduction by David Armitage, Princeton, 2014).

  2. Pingback: Links 7/25/14 | naked capitalism


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