Why I am battling to take this World Cup seriously

Aziz Bouhaddouz reacts after scoring a headed own goal from a set piece, in the final minutes of Friday's match against Iran. Photo: EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU

Photo credit: EPA

Let me start by saying that I love football. I have torn ligaments, sprained ankles, tripped opponents, and shot aimlessly like any other amateur. Let me continue by clarifying that there is something intoxicating about the World Cup spectacle, an event I have followed ever since I can remember. 

Even today, despite everything we know, be it the creepy footwork of corporates, the greed of officials or the temporality of sparkling stadiums and their inevitable fate as staid white elephants, we bend to its fervor. It is the World Cup, after all. But ever since the World Cup arrived in South Africa in 2010, I have battled to see the tournament as anything other than the numbing spectacle it has become. Each competition has its talking point; in 2010, the World Cup “came to Africa” – but to do so, it made room for the rich and pushed the poor and undesirable out of sight. In 2014, it moved to Brazil – where football lives, breathes and thrives on every street corner- but even here thousands were unhappy with the hidden and corrupt manner in which the tournament was being set up. In Brazil, the most democratic of sports was held up to ransom. 

At this year’s tournament, the shortage of positive spin on the hosts has meant that much of the talk has revolved around the diversity of football nations like frontrunners Belgium and France. 

I thought the sublime French team of 1998 -with around half of its team from immigrant families- had settled the diversity debate. But here we are in 2018, lauding it once more. And if we aren’t lauding it, and instead merely relating it as representative of the French or Belgian colonial past, we are still talking about it in ways that are ironic. Consider how the Economist frames it: “International football punishes inward-looking countries and rewards those with more cosmopolitan attitudes.” But the truth is that international teams, like corporates, adopt cosmopolitan attitudes only as a means to an end. Belgian ace striker Romelo Lukaku might says he is Belgian, but he is also Belgian because he is Romelo Lukaku. 

For every Lukaku, or Michy Batshuayi, household names in Belgium they may be, there are another 10, 20,100 or 1000 brown and black bodies who must show their IDs to prove they are home. Each time I see him take off, run, score or celebrate, I think of Congo, the land of his parents. His success is brilliant. But to describe Belgium as outward looking because it chooses a black player who wins them matches is quite ridiculous.

Plainly put, the diversity of the French or Belgian team do not impress me, because meritocracy in our society is also a wanton commodity. I want to see all-white players in the English, Belgian or French teams because that would stand as a more honest depiction of their society, not a visualisation of utopia. I don’t want to see black and brown bodies venerated because of their genius athleticism or ability to save a child falling from a third-floor flat. 

Nationalism has always been a drag, but the recent acceleration to the more nascent forms of xenophobic, racist nationalism that has bewitched much of western Europe has left me scrambling to see teams and players for what they are: football teams and footballers. They are the symbols of their individual dreams in a world of skullduggery. Each carry a story of personal victory at these finals. They are, by definition, anomalies.

Consider that Aliou Cissé, Senegal’s coach, is the only black coach at the tournament, with just two African coaches in total. This is out of 32 teams. Every other African team is coached by a foreigner with unreal salaries. Egypt’s Argentine coach Héctor Cúper earns an annual 1,5 million Euros, while Cissé, as the only black coach and lowest paid in the tournament, earns 13% of that. 

All of this talk might be unfair to the players. They are just footballers, but for how much longer are we going to pretend that every decision – be it the choice of coach or player or salary expectations – is not inherently political. Beyond the aligned kits, the contradictions tell us everything we need to know about society.

Each time I am able to steal a glance of the game on television or online, I am unable to distract from our collective decision to suspend disbelief at the shocking exploitation of nationalism and capitalism that has hijacked the game, has periodically displaced the poor and killed even the workers who built the stadiums.

Today, we watch football on one channel while simultaneously browsing Facebook, Twitter or Instagram on our smartphones. Stories of Saudi victory over Egypt and the bombings of Yemen and Syria are on the same timelines. Life, death and entertainment has never been closer, more intimate, and more incestuous. 

Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)