The Persians, the Romans, the Caliphate, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Spanish, the British, the Russians, the Nazis, the Americans and the Communists; pretty much every religion that’s ever existed; and absolutely every iteration of God. Since the dawn of time, all sorts of people and all manner of movements have tried to conquer the world … and yet only football has pulled it off, a benevolent dictator that will reign forever and ever amen.
It is easy to see why. No other sport has such pace and flow, and no other anything inspires such consuming, intense emotion; football is often dull, but it can never boring, because at any moment it might just produce the very best thing we’ve ever seen, the very best moment we’ve ever experienced, or both.
Most likely, that very best thing or very best moment will be a goal, which, thanks to the perfect balance of the game and bouncing nature of its culture, engenders a startling, discombobulating, incomparable buzz. If we live to experience ecstasy – and really, why shouldn’t we, how can’t we? – then football is the zenith of existence.
With us from childhood until death, football shapes time, moods and outlooks; a grand plot far more dramatic than our normal lives, with a recurring yet renewing genealogy that keeps it fresh and us young. The history of football isn’t just the history of football but our personal history, our family history and our species’ history, which is why it can matter both so much and so little.
And, every four years, we welcome the World Cup, a concerted burst of intense pleasure that elevates existence like nothing else. Bestowing an education that is as cultural as it is sporting, it not only binds disparate people in disunited nations but stretches across borders to enrapture an entire species. Nothing else compels the attention of planet Earth such that for one month, we are all focused on the same thing: a message from the human race to the human race, saying this is who we are and this – this – is the glory of which we’re capable.
It’d be nice to end this piece here, wouldn’t it? Enjoy! Have fun! Bye! And we still could… as long we’re happy to abandon the remnants of our integrity and submit to the will of ego.
Unfortunately, the World Cup’s magnificence has not gone unnoticed, which is why, since Mussolini in 1934, it has been commandeered by a selection of scumbags, despots and opportunists. But never has it spread as wide as the current extent; everywhere you look, there is something disgusting at which to wince. Fifa, under whose auspices the competition is run, is a sham of an organisation, ruined by corruption and greed. Vladimir Putin, president of the host nation, is probably the most dangerous man on the planet.
Even before the football has started, footballers have posed for photos with Ramzan Kadyrov and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the dictatorial bigots running Chechnya and Turkey respectively. Multinational corporations are making stacks of cash while domestic workers struggle and players wear kits made in sweatshops. Gay fans traveling to Russia have been warned to keep their sexuality to themselves in order to stay safe. Fears of racism are such that England’s Danny Rose has asked his family not to come and watch him. It is fucking, fucking awful.
Listen to the New Statesman’s new World Cup Podcast: Poilitcal Football – examining the global stories behind the beautiful game’s greatest tournament. First episode here.
And yet in England, this World Cup might also represent progress. Gareth Southgate is developing a fast, skilful, youthful team with a distinct style and likeable characters. It is true that he behaved badly when Wilfried Zaha opted to represent Côte d’Ivoire, but it is equally true he has created an environment in which his players are comfortable. Just last week, Rose felt sufficiently empowered to speak honestly about his struggles with mental health, an important staging-post not just for him but for all of us. Football culture, notoriously macho, apes and shapes wider culture, so by putting his suffering into the public domain, let alone speaking about it with such candour, he made a difference. Because of him, more people know that it is ok to suffer, that it is ok to talk about your suffering, that it is ok to ask for help, that it is possible to get better.
This England squad can also be influential in matters of race. Though it should make no difference – everyone deserves respect, regardless of how they are perceived by the white gaze – the presence of so many endearing players of colour is helpful. And so too, unwittingly, is the viciousness of the tabloid press. The outright racism, deployed against Raheem Sterling in particular, has forced a country which all too often believes it has addressed its prejudices and inequalities to examine them once more. It is now even harder to deny that we are not there yet – we do not even know where “there” is, let alone how we might find it – but in increasing numbers, we are at least recognising that “there” is somewhere we must reach.
And we can be helped on our journey by those in and close to this England squad. It is not the football writers who are perpetrating racism, but it is about time that those at the relevant papers and with the necessary clout challenged their colleagues who are. It is about time that Southgate banned the publications responsible for racially attacking his players. It is about time that the clubs represented by those players did the same, and it is about time that their teammates refused interviews to those responsible and called them out when speaking elsewhere.
But it is incumbent upon none of these people to educate or act for us – we are all responsible for ourselves, and as sentient, sensitive citizens, should be asking why we aren’t simply boycotting this World Cup. The answer, of course, is that we are incapable, hopeless addicts jonesing for a hit – but anyway, why should we allow the arseholes of humanity to rob us of its finest aspect?
So instead, let’s pay our moral debt, not by stepping away but by diving in. If Russia 2018 is here for anything, it is here to remind us of our duty to be better. So, when we see something discriminatory, we speak up. When those discriminated against recount their experiences, we listen. And when they tell us what they need, we act. Enjoy! Have fun! Bye!