Beautiful Games?

Corruption. Racism. Misogyny. Capitalism. The world’s sport, beloved for spreading community and joy, is also full of the world’s problems. All the more reason to watch.
In the early ’90s, cable TV reached the Vermont woods. The wire running up our dirt road brought MTV, C-SPAN, and a regional station called the New England Sports Network (NESN), which aired ...

The Fans

In the early ’90s, cable TV reached the Vermont woods. The wire running up our dirt road brought MTV, C-SPAN, and a regional station called the New England Sports Network (NESN), which aired college hockey and Red Sox baseball. Then, a bolt of foreign color. In August 1994, NESN began airing a weekly hour-long package of soccer highlights from the English Premier League.

I was 15, and, like many American kids in the 1980s, I’d played soccer since I was small. Still, my main affinity was basketball. Anyone who hit puberty near Michael Jordan’s prime knows why. To watch him contort his long body into amazing shapes in midair was to glimpse a variety of athleticism and grace that excelled anything else then on TV. We grew up loving ads that urged us to “Be Like Mike” and watched the best in the world playing hoops.

But then, that summer of 1994, the FIFA Men’s World Cup was staged in the United States for the first time. The tournament brought soccer greats with surnames like Maradona and Maldini and Bergkamp to American football stadiums in Chicago and Texas. Aired on network TV, their matches offered some enticing hints—especially when played in immigrant-rich cities—of what going to big soccer games abroad might feel like. Italy versus Ireland in New York’s Giants Stadium is still vivid in my mind. When that new highlights show debuted in August 1994, a few weeks after the Cup’s end, we were able to follow its players back to the pro clubs who paid their wages when they weren’t representing their countries.

The English Premier League was made for TV—literally. It was launched in 1992 by a cabal of leading clubs who defected from England’s old Football League to create a new product, which they then sold to Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB cable network in the UK, and to broadcasters worldwide (including Murdoch’s Fox-owned regional sports channels in the United States, such as NESN). But if the Premier League was new, the stadiums in which its teams played and the songs their fans sung bled tradition.

And its club owners spent their newfound cash from TV well. They signed top foreign players who turned their once-gray grounds into crucibles of cosmopolitanism, where, say, devotees of Leeds United thrilled to the thunderous skills of a Ghanaian named Yeboah and Newcastle became the stage for a Colombian called Asprilla. By midfall, I was recording every episode. By midwinter, I chose a team to support. Although Manchester United had Cantona and Liverpool had Fowler, no player excited me like Ian Wright of London’s Arsenal FC—a rakish attacker with a gold tooth and a bald pate who scored fantastic goals and celebrated with a joy I wished to share.

I was hooked.

So hooked, in fact, that I spent the rest of high school convinced I would play pro soccer myself. I had enough success at the game to think this wasn’t deluded. My high school team, helped by a striker from Bosnia whose family were refugees from that era’s war in the Balkans, won a state title. And I was fast and determined enough, at least, for Yale’s soccer coach to offer me a spot on his team.

By the end of sophomore year, my career was done. Like many Americans who succeed as youth players but are in no way potential pros, I lacked the base of learned technique—the capacity to instantly control a flighted ball, no matter its angle of approach—that aspiring players from Argentina to Accra start absorbing in pre-school.

But as I began spending less time on the field than in the library, my affinity only grew, partly thanks to a professor from London who was as interested in soccer as he was in the courses he taught on race and history. Paul Gilroy had supported the team I followed, Arsenal, since birth; he was perhaps as bemused as glad to meet a young Yank who shared his obsession. Gilroy to me was to soccer what C. L. R. James was to cricket—he confirmed that there were few lenses richer than this sport through which to ponder subjects like the British Empire and its aftermaths; identity and difference; culture and tradition.

Soccer—“association football”—was codified on Eton’s fields in the mid-1800s, before the Empire’s simplest game became the planet’s best-loved sport. Soccer requires neither fancy equipment nor plush grass nor any physical attributes in particular to play—and it proved extremely well-suited both to neighborhood pitches and to the floodlit stadiums of an industrial age. The emotions this game excited around the globe in the 20th century fed dramatic spectacles through which people hailed “the miracle of our own solidarities,” as the soccer historian David Goldblatt put it: “innumerable imagined communities of class, ethnicity, nation, region, neighborhood and community, struggling to be born.”

there were few lenses richer than this sport through which to ponder subjects like the British Empire and its aftermaths; identity and difference; culture and tradition.

Except, of course, in the United States. Here we yelled our differences from King George at Lexington and Concord. Americans tweaked British games—forging baseball from cricket and gridiron from rugby—to play team sports of little interest to anyone else. In the late 1990s, my shared bond with a homesick Brit was a minority one—maybe unremarkable among globalist academics, but also easy to map onto Congressman Jack Kemp’s assertion in the previous decade that Americans would never take to this “European socialist sport.”

But now that’s changed. When our mighty women’s team won a World Cup on home dirt, we learned to cheer them on. And today NBC airs full Premier League matches on weekend mornings. The 10 million American kids who play soccer also wear the replica jerseys of Arsenal or Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Watching soccer has surpassed not just baseball and hockey in popularity among Americans aged 12–24, according to a recent ESPN poll, but may soon best basketball as well. (And given the NFL’s travails and the damage its game does players’ brains, one wouldn’t bet against soccer someday surpassing gridiron, too.) Americans have finally joined the world in the obsessive interest that we humans have long been paying to earth’s most popular televisual spectacle—22 people chasing a round ball on a green field.

This is notable at a moment when our politics are defined by a frenetic tweeter-in-chief who urges Americans to withdraw from the world rather than engage it. And even more so on the eve of a World Cup in Russia—the first to take place since FIFA’s corruption scandals—that likely landed there by illicit means, and which is being played in a country at the center of other storms roiling world politics.

The World Cup will be a celebration, as ever, of a game that unites us by toasting our differences. But it will also exemplify how this hopeful institution has been corrupted by malevolent forces involving Trump Tower, the Kremlin, and the insidious influence of television: the medium that’s fed soccer’s ongoing conquest of world culture.

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Soccer for Intellectuals

By Bécquer Seguín

 

The Field

Soccer’s march to prominence in the United States has been mirrored in publishing. Twenty years ago the only first-rate books on the game available here were quasi-anthropological studies of soccer fans. Shaved-headed specimens quaffed pints in Millwall, East London, bellowing swears from the pages of Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs. Now, along with those studies, we have memoirs by the game’s devotees and legends and works by investigative journalists and professors of political science and of philosophy.

You could fill a long shelf with books on the game: standouts range from David Goldblatt’s landmark global history, The Ball Is Round, to Eduardo Galeano’s lyrical lefty’s ode to its power as social force and as art in Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Last year, we got a volume of soccer letters between the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard and his Swedish friend Fredrik Ekelund. For those drawn to the sport “not just as a game to play but as a problem to crack,” as Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame put it, there’s Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics.

And then there’s the long tradition of soccer books predicated on explaining the game—its confounding offsides rule, and its as-confounding global appeal—to Americans. Several new entries in this mini-genre, whose urtext is Franklin Foer’s 2004 bestseller How Soccer Explains The World, are being published to coincide with the World Cup. These include a volume by a pair of affable expat Brits: calling themselves the Men in Blazers, they’ve become leading figures in the realm of US soccer broadcasting.

Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, who met at a wedding reception that they left together to watch the 2006 World Cup final, launched a podcast devoted to “America’s ‘sport of the future’ since 1972” a few years later. They’ve now ridden its wry shtick to anchoring NBC coverage of the Premier League. Their Encyclopedia Blazertannica is comprised of learned or silly balderdash about the finer points of knee-slide goal celebrations and why Arsenal fans are identified with “a way of life in which stoic dignity in defeat is always preferred to a pragmatically won trophy.”

Watching soccer has surpassed not just baseball and hockey in popularity among Americans aged 12–24, according to a recent ESPN poll, but may soon best basketball as well.

More sober in tone is Laurent Dubois’ The Language of the Game, a useful synthesis of more substantial works on the game by a distinguished historian, whose love for soccer has yielded a book that’s commended by its attention to the women’s game, as well as by portraits of magnetic figures like Lilian Thuram, the elegant French defender who’s now an elegant foe of French racism. Books like Ruud Gullit’s How to Watch Soccer, whose author won fame as a flying Dutch midfielder for AC Milan, prove that mastery on the field often lands on the page with only ambling insight.

By now, the United States also has its own professional league, with devoted fans and enough colorful characters—many of them foreign stars who’ve aged out of Europe’s top leagues—to sustain careers like Grant Wahl’s. Wahl is a leading soccer journalist with Sports Illustrated who wrote a book about David Beckham’s impacts on Major League Soccer. He’s now published a collection of profiles of leading figures in the game—from Germany’s Manuel Neuer to Mexico’s “Chicharito” Hernández—called Masters of Modern Soccer.

Thanks to celebrities like Beckham, “MLS” is now a success, but one still feels sorry for a league whose hard-won stability—and the truth that its teams can pay million-dollar salaries to players in a league whose standard is not world-class—has joined the list of factors commonly cited to explain the persistent mediocrity of the US men’s national team. Last fall, that mediocrity was underscored when the US men lost their final qualifying match for the World Cup to little Trinidad and Tobago. This defeat means there will be no Team USA in Russia, and animates new books that address this fact in tones ranging from bullish (I Believe That We Will Win, by Phil West) to galling (What’s Wrong With US?, by the coach responsible for that debacle in Trinidad, Bruce Arena).

A more winning new sort of American soccer book focuses not on the middling state of the sport’s top level here (at least when it comes to our men—the women are different), but on how important soccer has become to the kind of American towns where high school sports shape civic life. In One Goal, Amy Bass recounts soccer’s recent roles in the larger story of Lewiston, Maine: an old mill town on the Androscoggin River that’s been transformed, since 2001, by Somali refugees who landed there from East Africa’s wars.

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Black Athletes, Black Activists

By Jules Boykoff

These thousands of black followers of Islam revived Lewiston’s dying streets; or, depending on whom you asked, represented a worrying threat to a very white place. But then those refugees’ soccer-loving sons, with their crusty Irish coach, turned Lewiston High School into a soccer champion—and convinced many members of this community, anyway, that immigrants and refugees should be seen not as this country’s burden, but its hope.

But such warming tales aside, there are two subjects that deserve the most attention when talking about soccer in the United States today—and both of them have to do with traits for which the US can still be admired. The first of these is the all-conquering women’s national team: a side that’s won fully half of the major tournaments it’s entered since the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. These players’ popularity in the culture stands as a potent exemplar of how Title IX, the 1972 federal law mandating equality of opportunity in American education and thus American sports, has advanced gender equity everywhere.

The United States’ other prominent role in world soccer involves a pair of beleaguered American institutions—the FBI and the Department of Justice—that won the esteem of soccer-lovers everywhere on May 27, 2015, when they revealed that US Attorneys in New York’s Eastern District had, for years, been building an investigation into the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA.

The landmark indictments unveiled that day, after the dramatic early morning arrest of a slew of senior FIFA officials at a luxury Zurich hotel, illuminated the extent to which FIFA’s regional confederations and their partners in business in fact comprised a single enterprise: a global criminal syndicate, in effect, whose members had for decades corrupted this game from within by “engaging in various criminal activities, including fraud, bribery, and money laundering, in pursuit of personal and commercial gain.”
 

The Corruption

Since that morning outside Zurich’s Baur au Lac, vats of ink have been devoted to detailing FIFA’s scandals.1 What distinguishes the journalist Ken Bensinger’s book Red Card: How the US Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal is its authoritative inside account of an investigation whose prime movers and foreign characters remain connected, in more ways than we knew, to key currents in our degraded public sphere here.

Bensinger was the first reporter to detail how the most prominent American in FIFA’s recent foibles, Chuck Blazer, rose from running youth leagues in Scarsdale to an office in Trump Tower won with ill-gotten soccer wealth.2 Blazer was the longtime general secretary of CONCACAF (one of FIFA’s six regional confederations, covering North America, Central America, and the Caribbean), who poured millions from TV and other revenue directly into his own coffers—before he was busted by the feds for not paying taxes on any of it, in 2011, and became a key cooperator in their investigation into his cronies.

Putin eyed Chuck Blazer, whose support would be key to Russia’s bid for the 2018 Cup, and exclaimed, “You look just like Karl Marx!” Then he gave him a high five.

Blazer was an obese man with a bushy beard who enjoyed riding his mobility scooter around Central Park with a parrot on his shoulder, frightening kids: “a Coen Brothers movie character,” in the words of the Men in Blazers, “made real thanks to global football.” But his opportunist’s journey to the game’s peak began in earnest in 1989 in Trinidad. As Bensinger recounts, Blazer traveled there to watch the United States defeat Trinidad and Tobago, earning a trip to its first World Cup in a generation. The next afternoon, he paid a visit to the home of Trinidad’s own soccer chief, Jack Warner, a wily operator who’d sparked rage among his countrymen the day before by selling some 20,000 more tickets to the big match than there were seats.

Blazer visited Warner not to remonstrate with him over that clumsy cash grab, but to convince him to run for president of CONCACAF. Pointing to the one-nation-one-vote system that pertains to all FIFA elections, Blazer urged the one-time schoolteacher to gather the support of officials from each of the Caribbean’s 18 little member-nations. If Warner did so, he’d control an unbeatable block of votes, which would far outstrip the other nine votes up for grabs from Central and North America—and allow the Trinidadian, with Blazer’s help, to become the soccer boss of a continent.

Thus began the ballad of “Jack and Chuck,” who for the next two decades oversaw every cent of revenue that came into a confederation whose leadership they leveraged for various schemes: ranging from the infamous “Centre of Excellence,” which Warner built with FIFA funds on land he secretly owned in Trinidad, to the arranging and taking of pivotal bribes, as members of FIFA’s 22-member Executive Committee, that saw the 2010 World Cup awarded to South Africa.3

A few weeks after that Cup’s finale—with a vote fast approaching to decide who’d host the 2018 and 2022 tournaments—Blazer flew to Moscow, where he was received by Vladimir Putin himself. Putin eyed this American, whose support would be key to Russia’s bid for the 2018 Cup, and exclaimed, “You look just like Karl Marx!” Then he gave him a high five. Blazer cemented their bond by asking Putin to send him exclusive photos from his vacation, which Blazer posted on his personal blog: a chronicle of the one-time “soccer dad’s” adventures in world politics that he called “Travels with Chuck Blazer and His Friends.”

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American Romances, Russian Realities

By Emily D. Johnson

Whether Blazer, back home at Trump Tower, ever told his landlord about this meeting is unknown. He died of cancer last year. But he was friendly with Donald Trump, who gave his fellow native of Queens subsidized rent on the three jumbo units that Blazer rented in Trump Tower—one for himself, one for his cats, and one for CONCACAF’s offices—and let Blazer host a reunion of his classmates from Forest Hills High School in the pink marble lobby.

As we learn from Bensinger’s book, the sprawling investigation for which Blazer’s malfeasance was a crucial seed was brought to fruition by a globe-spanning cast of characters. Key among them was Christopher Steele, an ex-MI6 agent—now famous for producing a notorious “dossier” on Trump’s doings in Moscow—who in 2010 shared some juicy intelligence with an FBI agent investigating the Russian mob that opened the Bureau’s file on FIFA. Also essential was Evan Norris, the dogged and discreet Assistant US Attorney who ran the ensuing five-year investigation, and amazingly managed to keep its contents secret until Norris’s boss, Loretta Lynch, unsealed them for the world.

A heretofore unknown IRS agent from California named Steve Berryman, who Bensinger makes plain was the case’s lynchpin, caught wind of the FBI’s investigation into Chuck Blazer’s dodgy dealings, and examined Blazer’s tax records. Berryman was a soccer nut who woke up early on weekends in LA to watch his beloved Liverpool play on TV. He was also an expert at parsing complex wire transfers and finding hidden assets. He found that CONCACAF’s general secretary hadn’t filed returns in years.

Backed by subpoena power from the DOJ and working with the FBI, Berryman examined the financial records of an ever-expanding list of soccer officials and their cronies. He looked at international wire-transfers and other payments, whether for tournaments in South America or fees for marketers, to see firsthand how “the story of modern soccer was really about the emergence of a new kind of business,” as Bensinger puts it, “that turned out to have corruption baked into it nearly from the moment it was born.”

The only real difference between FIFA and the NFL, as a lawyer close to the FIFA investigation recently told me, is that in one money goes under the table and in the other over it.

That “new kind of business,” as we now know well, dates most crucially from when FIFA’s most important modern president, the Brazilian potentate João Havelange, took office in 1974 and began transforming a fusty governing body into a hulking cash cow. Havelange’s partners in business turned “sports marketing firms” into essential middlemen in a booming global trade. Such firms acquired comprehensive TV and marketing rights to big events like the World Cup, in exchange for hefty kickbacks to FIFA officials, then sold on their properties: not merely to broadcasters, who showed games on TV, but to “official sponsors,” from Coca-Cola to Visa, who attached their logos to them. And in the Americas, as the FBI’s burgeoning investigation found, few in this business succeeded like a Brazilian named José Hawilla.

Hawilla founded his company, the Traffic Group, in 1980 in São Paulo, and built his fortune paying bribes to soccer officials in exchange for rights to hugely popular tournaments, such as South America’s quadrennial championship of national teams, the Copa América. Hawilla’s company also worked with Chuck Blazer on the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a tournament Blazer created to give himself and his partners a TV-ready spectacle involving Mexico and the nations of Central America to sell to Spanish-language broadcasters across the hemisphere (including in the United States, where 50 million subscribers to Univision comprise a valuable market indeed). It was Hawilla’s involvement with Blazer—and many other bits of his business that ran through US banks—that saw the Brazilian, during a visit to Miami in 2014, arrested by the FBI. Hawilla, faced with the choice of going to jail or turning informant, chose the latter.

By the time he did so, Blazer was on his way out of FIFA and Jack Warner was already gone. But the ways that Blazer and “Trinidad Jack” ran CONCACAF more than survived their departure as Jeffrey Webb, a suave banker from the Cayman Islands, took over CONCACAF’s throne.

Webb won office amid hearty backing from FIFA’s top brass and promises of a new dawn of “transparency, integrity, engagement, and accountability.” But among Webb’s first acts was appointing as his general secretary a Colombian TV executive in Miami, Enrique Sanz, who also happened to be one of José Hawilla’s top lieutenants at Traffic. Webb effectively brought the TV loot that was his job’s chief perk in-house.

And then he worked with his FIFA counterparts in South America to concoct a new tournament that Traffic and two rival firms signed on to market: a special centennial edition of the Copa América that would mark the tournament’s 100th anniversary by bringing South American stars like Messi and Neymar to a far more lucrative market: the United States. The tournament would be played only a year after the 2015 Copa América, and wedged into an awkward spot in the soccer calendar, just after the end of the pro season in Europe and before the Olympics in Rio. For bringing this tournament to fruition, Jeffrey Webb alone expected to bank at least $10 million.

Sadly for Webb, it didn’t work out that way. His key aide Enrique Sanz, shortly after joining the Caymanian’s employ, had been flipped by the FBI. In May 2015, Jeffrey Webb was among those arrested at Zurich’s Baur au Lac. (He was convicted on a raft of charges for racketeering, fraud, and money laundering.) But in June 2016, the Copa América Centenario kicked off as planned. In the United States alone, Traffic and its partners had sold TV rights to its games, whose official sponsors included Coca-Cola and Nike, for over $100 million.

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Athlete Activists

By Jules Boykoff

Such is the tangled web of corruption tied to soccer that we can thank reporters like Bensinger for unraveling. But if there’s a failure in much American writing about FIFA’s corruptions, it’s the moralizing tendency to downplay the extent to which that corruption—as the persistent presence of blue-chip American brands in this story suggests—is of a piece with the larger enterprise of professional sports.

That enterprise, in the case of the NFL, for example, revolves around team owners and marketers creating ever-new ways for fans to watch their players—whether on Sunday afternoons or Monday nights, or now on Thursdays as well—perform feats of violence and grace on TV. They lack the pressure that world soccer’s minders have felt, to project a love for the game (and for its players’ well-being) that supersedes their stake in its profits. But the only real difference between FIFA and the NFL, as a lawyer close to the FIFA investigation recently told me, is that in one money goes under the table and in the other over it: NFL Commissioner Roger’s Goodell’s current contract, after all, pays him a reported $200 million over five years.

 

The Games

On June 14, FIFA’s $5 billion flagship kicks off in Moscow. The world will be watching—and so will Americans: even though our team won’t be present, FOX will carry 38 of the Cup’s 64 matches live (and stream the rest of them online). Worldwide, those games will be seen by an estimated four billion people—more than one billion will watch the final alone. The 32 teams present will no doubt furnish moments evincing the idealistic vision of the World Cup’s founders, in the era that also birthed the League of Nations, for a competition wherein conflicts between nations could be directed “towards peaceful contests in the stadium.” But at a time when many world institutions born of liberal ideals in the last century are under siege, this year’s Cup is being staged in a country deeply identified with illiberal nostalgia for the ancien régime.

Vladimir Putin is a hockey fan who’s said to hate soccer, but the personal interest he took in Russia’s bid to host this Cup, in the spring of 2010, seems to have been key to its success. As Christopher Steele informed the FBI at that time, Steele and others gathering intelligence on the means Putin’s people were employing to win grew convinced that rivals like England—whose bid for the 2018 Cup, like the United States’ for 2022 against Qatar, was based partly in patronage but mostly in already having the necessary stadiums—didn’t stand a chance against adversaries who, Bensinger tells us, were “playing a different game.”

Worldwide, those games will be seen by an estimated four billion people—more than one billion will watch the final alone.

That game’s decisive move may have arrived that same spring, when a high-level Russian delegation visited Qatar, nominally to discuss natural gas extraction, but allegedly to swap World Cup votes. It may have come when FIFA head Sepp Blatter was spotted that summer in South Africa taking meetings privately with Roman Abramovich, the Putin-allied oligarch who also owns top English club Chelsea. But when FIFA’s “ExCo” met in Zurich in December 2010, it seems the fix was in. A nation where July temperatures hover over 100 degrees, Qatar, bested the United States for 2022. Russia trounced England and two other foes to seize 2018.

As those results were announced, at least one senior official was heard to say: “This is the end of FIFA.” But of course it wasn’t. Loretta Lynch’s DOJ may have felled Sepp Blatter’s generation of bigwigs, but Blatter’s successor is a similarly ingratiating Swiss, Gianni Infantino, who won election in 2016 by promising his applauding backers: “The money of FIFA is your money!”

With FIFA already planning to expand the World Cup from 32 nations to 48 in 2026—a change with zero sporting justification but billions of financial ones—Infantino will soon have more money to throw around. And this spring has seen him not only back a push to move that expansion up by four years, but announce what may be an even more significant shift: his ongoing negotiations with a shadowy investment group wishing to market and stage a new event—a quadrennial 24-team “Club World Cup”—that would net FIFA $25 billion.

This plan has met with loud resistance from top clubs in Europe, whose overworked players play in enough rich competitions already. But Infantino remains eager, and has claimed that his sketchy partners’ big offer—an offer whose reported source is the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, backed by Saudi investors hoping to trump their Qatari rivals in influencing the world game—will soon expire. In May, Infantino called for an emergency meeting of FIFA’s honchos, despite the fact that those same officials were set to convene a few weeks later in Moscow, on June 13, to help decide whether the 2026 World Cup will be in Morocco or North America.

The day after they do so, FIFA’s officials and sponsors and some lucky fans will fill Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium for a game between the hosts and Saudi Arabia. Over the next month, matches will be played in 11 cities—from Volgograd to St. Petersburg to Rostov-on-Don—that boast shiny new stadiums, whose building enriched contractors and commissioning officials. These same officials, enraging animal rights groups, have ensured that these cities’ streets will be free of stray dogs—by granting million-ruble contracts to see them exterminated. The streets will fill with traveling fans on vacation, and with angrier ones who police hope don’t drink too much Baltika beer or engage with local “ultras,” who have a history of brawling with fans of England, whose team (if not their leaders and royals, carrying out a “diplomatic boycott”) will be here, too.

But those who travel to Russia won’t be the only ones watching. And whether the billions more who absorb the Cup through glowing screens do so on street-side TVs in Lagos or iPads in Seoul, they’ll at once be watching the same games and seeing something different—especially if their nations are involved. In Egypt and in Peru they’ll revel in being there for the first time in a generation. In Brazil, they’ll project hope but also fatalistic worry that their squad’s outsized stature but fragile psyche could result, like last time out, in pained defeat. In Germany, they’ll feel calmly confident that their top-ranked side can affirm their status as the industrious but liberal juggernaut atop Europe’s heap, while the French will fret over whether their talented team of immigrants’ kids can pull together and win. All of us, everywhere, will delight in Messi’s quiet genius and recoil from Ronaldo’s preening.

This game—which pulled Americans toward a world beyond their own—has a way of showing us, if we pay attention, that it’s a world as suffused with realpolitik as idealism. But perhaps, in an era when our politics feels more shorn of ideals all the time, that’s part of its appeal. On the field, the world as we want it. Around its edges, the world as it is. We can’t look away. icon

  1. See, for example, David Conn’s The Fall of the House of FIFA: The Multimillion Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer (Nation Books, 2017).
  2. See Ken Bensinger, “Mr. Ten Percent: The Man Who Built—and Bilked—American Soccer,” Buzzfeed, June 6, 2014.
  3. See my “Jack’s Trinidad,” Harper’s, August 27, 2015.
Featured image: Photograph by Fancy Crave / Unsplash