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A Funny Old Game

Ed Vulliamy writes: As the World Cup tears through its knockout phase towards the final denouement, it becomes ever clearer: this festival ‑ indeed football itself ‑ is not really about sport; it is anthropology.

Football at this level is popular globalisation, and it is completely, wonderfully bonkers.

People still hold out: “I’m not interested in sport”; “What could be more stupid than 22 men kicking a ball around?”; “How dare they earn so much money?” Some are killjoys, some are snobs, and this attitude among the intelligentsia is new ‑ at odds with that of football fanatics like Dimitri Shostakovich and Albert Camus. But even if the naysayers are right, they’re missing out ‑ on so much weirdness, so many laughs and much international subtlety ‑ interesting rip-tides cutting beneath those 1.5 acres of grass. 

Inevitable political currents run through some games, but it’s not always obvious. Both Switzerland’s goals against Serbia were greeted by festivities in Prstina, capital of ethnically Albanian Kosovo, not just because Kosovars like to see the Serbs lose but because the scorers of both goals ‑ Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri ‑ were sons of refugees from Kosovo, violently subdued by Serbia during the war of 1998-9. Both face discipline by football’s governing body, FIFA, for gestures resembling the Albanian eagle; Xhaka’s father was a prisoner in a Serbian camp.

The Kosovo narrative continued when star-studded teams of the world’s wealthiest and most famous players were rescued by the introduction of lesser-known, even obscure, team-mates as substitutes – one of them being Adnan Januzaj, a Kosovar-Belgian, who came in when his team of more illustrious names had failed to break a deadlock with England. When mighty Spain struggled 1-1 against humble Morocco, they were saved by a goal not from household names such as Iniesta or Diego Costa but Iago Aspas, one of few in the side who does not play for glamorous Real Madrid or Barcelona, but lowly Celta Vigo.

When Argentina faced national disgrace for failing to progress to the knockout stages, the winning goal that saw them through against Nigeria came not from superstars Lionel Messi, Ángel Di Maria or Sergio Agüero but Marcos Rojo, who often fails to make the first team at Manchester United. After he did so, a video went viral of wild celebrations in Bangladesh, nine time zones from Argentina, where fans rode in whooping columns of motorbikes, Argentinian flags aloft.

The serious arrival of the developing world and Asia into a game hitherto dominated by Europe and Latin America concludes football’s claim to be a genuine, popular globalisation. At one level, this is characterised by Arab money doing what one Parisian called: “making Paris St Germain no longer a football club, but a bank”. At another, it began with the football, not the money: with Reggie Miller of Cameroon taking the Italian World Cup of 1990 by storm. When Senegal knocked Sweden out of the 2002 World Cup in Japan, dawn was breaking in Harlem, and young men were skipping along parked cars in delight.

Some games are better than others, this time round. France and Argentina played a thriller as good it gets; England and Colombia were shameful, as the American referee lost control: a head-butt against Jordan Henderson and unpunished kick in the head for Radamel Falcao – England’s prize for this disgrace being a quarter-final place against Sweden this Saturday.

No doubt the usual footballing countries will close in on the final berths of this World Cup, but many have been lost on the way and there’s a new dynamic in football which runs counter to other branches of cartel capitalism, whereby the gap between the great (and very rich) and the good (not so rich) is closing. In Brazil during the 2014 World Cup, Colombia and Chile were shining stars. When the favourites met, the Brazilian hosts were thrashed by Germany 7-1, but the Germans had nearly lost to Algeria a few days beforehand and this time were dumped out by South Korea after losing to a radiant Mexico.

In Russia, Spain struggled to narrowly beat Morocco and went out to the Russian hosts – almost all of whom play against one another at home, for teams that make little impact on European club football – while the glamorous Spanish play for Real and Barcelona, which dominate Europe. Japan came close to ousting star-studded Belgium.

Mighty Portugal failed to beat Iran, Cristiano Ronaldo notwithstanding. Iran has had an estimable World Cup in the presence of thousands of women fans who are banned from stadiums back home, but filled those in Russia dressed in team shirts, their hair free and faces adorned with cosmetics and painted flags. The fact that they had to go to Russia to feel a sense of liberation might seem ironic to some – Iran’s ally in the devastation of Syria – but it’s yet another layer beneath the spectacle of men kicking a ball around. Record numbers of women have watched in the stadiums and on television – a welcome development accompanied by outrageous sexual harassment of female fans and TV presenters; Getty Images arranged a “hottest fans” gallery.

Players – especially from poor countries - have always left home to play their club football. The last team to win the World Cup with a side drawn exclusively from home clubs was Italy in 2006. But this globalisation of football has now become as surreal as it is total.  Teenagers find themselves in the most unlikely places: during Peru’s opening game against France, a commentator for the French channel TF1 commented that André Carillo “joue en Angleterre, pour le Watford”, a non-descript suburb on the outskirts of London – the weirdness is taken for granted, no question of “how did he get from the Andes to there?” Back home, for the first time, World Cup games were shown – and commentary given - on Peruvian Quecha language TV stations.

Another Peruvian, four Nigerians, a Brazilian, a Moroccan and an Iranian in this World Cup play their club football in the host nation or Russian Ukraine, despite infamously rampant racism in the crowds – what is going on when Russian skinheads have African or Arab heroes? A similar derangement plays out in Britain over the abomination of Brexit. Fans vote to leave Europe and for de facto deportation of hard-working Portuguese nurses, German and Greek doctors, Italian radiologists, Spanish bakers and Polish plumbers ‑ then boorishly swig Kronenbourg (French), Stella (Belgian), Carlsberg (Danish) and Peroni (Italian) lager to cheer on teams managed by José Mourinho (Portuguese), Jürgen Klopp (German), Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri (Italian), and starring Eden Hazard (Belgian), Paul Pogba and Olivier Giroud (French), David de Gea (Spanish),Andreas Christiensen (Danish), Krystian Bielik (Polish)- and the rest. Football may generate inimitable humour, but not always intelligence.

There are inevitable colonial connections: many of the Senegalese team narrowly beaten in this World Cup were born and play in France, and the French team itself was, in the year it last reached the final, 2006, subject to a racist jibe from Jean-Marie Le Pen, who thought it a shame that the team did not “represent” the nation. French star Lilian Thuram retorted that the players – eight of them black – had taken France to the World Cup final, which was more than Le Pen had done for the country. That was the last game in which Zinedine “Zizou” Zidane, a Marseille Algerian, played for France – an occasion he marked by head-butting Italian Marco Materazzi. Zidane is the living icon of French football, and was among the most successful managers of all time at Real Madrid. I’ve noticed an interesting difference between the next-door neighbours of two empires – British and French – with regard to football. Almost all Irish fans would adhere to a loyalty – or rather a disloyalty ‑ known on T-shirts as “AAE”, Anyone Against England, for obvious and visceral reasons. But at my local café du coin in Paris, it is the opposite: French-Algerians, Senegalese and Malians are fervent supporters of Les Bleus. Their logic: “We are all France.”

Icons like Zidane matter, cogently and often poignantly. Edin Dzeko, the Bosnian ace striker for Roma, was burned out of his family home in the Serb-occupied part of Sarajevo and grew up in his grandmother’s house under siege. Across the Bosnian refugee diaspora, Dzeko is adored for having renounced offers of more lucrative nationality to play for Bosnia-Herzegovina; a child survivor of the Srebrenica massacre living in St Louis, Missouri, told me once: “When Dzeko scores, every Bosnian scattered across the world scores with him”. Dzeko’s team-mate Vedad Ibšević was, as a child, hidden in a hole while his house was burned down and father killed in a town called Vlasenica. He scored the goal that qualified Bosnia for the 2014 World Cup, and said: “for some people, it was just a goal ‑ for us it was the whole story”.  The Bosnian football team is the only functioning ethnically-mixed organism in the riven, scarred country. Even the football federation operated, until UEFA intervened, a sectarian rotating presidency between ethnicities. But not the team: if Pjanić the Bosnian Croat passes to Misimović, the captain and a Bosnian Serb, who lays it on for Dzeko, a Bosniak Muslim, you do not refuse the ball, you play it all you can.

Football is a global conversation. There’s a world of difference between getting into a taxi at Madrid airport and consulting your city guide in the back seat, and engaging the driver in a discourse on whether he supports Real or Atlético, and how each team is doing. The latter may even get you a lower fare, as well as a good chat. I have been to Rio de Janeiro – arguably football’s Mecca ‑ once only, and my abiding memory is of the “Fla-Flu” derby between Flamingo and Fluminense – to have seen it set the course for a week’s chatter and made my stay an entirely different prospect and experience to that of a tourist or visitor on business.

This is not just true of the obvious Spain or Brazil. I watched a European Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea in Beijing, in bars packed all night with Chinese fans – it humanised and redeemed a city I confess to having otherwise disliked. When covering the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, we reporters based in Baghdad were allowed one request each to the office of Saddam Hussein’s spokesman Tariq Aziz. While most colleagues sought political interviews, mine was to go to a football match, duly arranged. After the match (between the police and university – the police won) and a marvellous afternoon, I got talking to a begging waif on account of his (very unofficial) shirt of Juventus Turin. The lad knew all about Juventus players, games and statistics from Iranian TV – which, he said, “is better because they don’t interrupt the play with Saddam speeches” - but when I asked the boy his age, he replied: “I don’t know.”

Some supporters are better than others, for sure. Two years ago, at the European championships, while awful English and Russian fans kicked and punched one another and smashed windows in Marseille, rival Irish and Belgians staged such a funny joint street party in Bordeaux that mayor Alain Juppé said he hoped they would return and declared the fans “a disgrace to hooliganism”. (Ireland had lost 3-0 and of course the supporters cared, but not enough to spoil the occasion.)

But football does encourage tribal hatred ‑ and cause appalling violence – as well as generate banter and hilarity. My own trajectory as a supporter took a U-turn the night I watched the 1985 European Cup Final between Juventus and what had been my family team, Liverpool (my grandfather had been a Liverpool season ticket holder during the 1920s).

The scene that greeted us when we arrived at the Heysel stadium in Brussels was unforgettably horrific: two charges by Liverpool fans at Italians who for the most part had come in family groups from elsewhere in Italy rather than Juventus’s home of Turin, pinned them against a wall, whereupon a third, lethal charge collapsed the wall, and thirty-nine Juventus supporters were crushed to death. The reaction among Liverpool fans, at Liverpool Football Club and in the British media – excuses about the condition of the stadium and its policing and ticket sales policy – was so revolting I spent that summer driving to Turin, and, in shame and penance, joined the Juventus supporters club Primo Amore.

Juventus is the best anthropological example of football as a state of mind and way of life, a social, not just sporting, institution. Italians either adore or despise “La Juve”; there is no middle way. There exists a concept called Juventitá – Juventusness – which is supposed to encapsulate a set of values. The club, known as La Vecchia Signora – the grand old lady - is rich, successful, belongs to the Fiat car company, and prides itself on – as supporters’ banners proclaim – “Tradizione”, “Onore” – tradition and honour. The team is supported across the country but in Turin not so much by locals as by “immigrants” from the poor South who came during the 1950s to work for Fiat and adopted the boss’s team as a matter of identity in the North.

Juventus is what I call “Peronismo calcistico” – football Peronism: the pan-ideological, united organism of the leader and masses in one identity. Two great leaders of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti and Enrico Berlinguer, deployed much energy in the organisation of strikes at Fiat, yet both supported the company’s team, and were Juventino. In 2006, when the club was punished for corruption with purgatorial relegation to the second division for the only time in its history, most of the team’s stars – many of whom had just played in the Italian side which won the World Cup of 2006 ‑ stayed rather than desert the sinking ship for other top-flight teams. “Un gentiluomo non lascia mai una vecchia signora”, said striker Alex Del Piero, “a gentleman never leaves an old lady”.

I have spent much of my life as a war correspondent, and football has served me well in that regard, got me out of a few close scrapes. One night, I accompanied 1,600 Bosnian Muslims rounded up and deported for “ethnic cleansing” on a terrifying convoy at gunpoint and through a battlefield. When time came for drunken Serb militiamen – AKs at the ready - to haul the deportees from their cars in order to steal them and everything else they had, I dreaded our turn – a stowaway reporter, a “media spy”. In the tense huddle, I noticed a Red Star Belgrade badge on one of the armed men and said to my Slovenian colleague: “Andre, tell that man I saw his team win the European Cup in Bari last year”, which I had. The man –from the mountains and probably never having seen Red Star live ‑ was astounded. “Did you see our players, fans and flags? Did you hear our songs?” he asked, wide-eyed. “Yes, yes ‑ fantastic!” I lied (it was a boring  game and the supporters terrifying). The conversation went on some time, in detail. Then he waved us through.

Working on the narco-traffic wars in Mexico, when I find myself in cartel-controlled places like Tamaulipas or Sinaloa, I tend to wear a Mexican national shirt or, better, a T-shirt showing a scene from the 2014 World Cup in which Aren Robben of Holland collapses to the ground, ostensibly tripped by Mexican captain Raphael Márquez. There is clearly no contact, but the ensuing penalty eliminated Mexico – “No Era Penal” roars the T-shirt, it wasn’t a penalty.

When a gringo enters a bar in scary Matamoros or Culiacan, the cartel “halcones” or scouts are supposed to question him pretty thoroughly. But in this T-shirt, things go differently. Why are you wearing that? “Porque no era penal!” – and the conversation inevitably begins, and proceeds to other games ‑ maybe even a high-five, certainly another beer. Football changes the subject; they forget to kill you.

The World Cup is all about flags, nations ‑ and on the surface of things, the cynics would appear to be right. But there’s an important element of pastiche, almost self-mockery in football  ‑ hence the wig-wearing and dotty hats – that knows this is all ridiculous. One can debate forever when and where patriotism ends and nationalism begins (and as a British citizen, I abhor both, especially these days). But in stupid times of ugly nationalism, football can – though not always ‑ encourage the opposite, despite appearances – the “fan parks” in Berlin for the 2006 World Cup and beneath the Eifel Tower for the Euros of 2016 were hilarious global villages of fun and encounter. 

Football can also turn the world upside down: this is a cogent time for Mexico to deprive the United States of a place in the World Cup, as they did. I remember watching Mexico beat the USA on television in Tijuana in 2008 – the victory followed by a spontaneous march to the borderline, flag-waving, giving the finger North. It’s a way of saying: you may have the power and money, but we have the football, and we’re better than you.

Then there was this: during interviews we were conducting for a film with Colombian government negotiators and generals and commanders from the Marxist FARC guerrillas forging the peace accord in Havana, almost all of them remembered a scene described by General Oscar Naranjo, who later became deputy president: “When the Colombian team was playing and they [FARC] arrived wearing their yellow shirts, the colors of the team, I thought: we have a country that is Colombia. Which we love, and we have to find a solution.”

My advice to those who yearn for this world-wide fiesta to end, who wonder why every bar along 34th Street in morning-time Manhattan was full of sky-blue striped Argentinians on a Monday lunchtime, green-shirted Mexicans on Tuesday, then yellow-shirted Colombians on Wednesday, is: lap it up! Look it up in what are more than just the “sports pages” for the next ten days or so; enjoy the fact that all this is crazy stuff, and the more world there is in the World Cup, the crazier it gets.

6/7/2018