Football is globalization on steroids. But in the World Cup, it bows to nationalism, the scourge that it has been trying to eradicate for the last four decades. The flags that flutter in streets and squares, the crowds that dress in national colors, and the mocking and defiant chants against countries that do not make the grade, remind us that the tribe in us lives on.
However, the face of the tribe has changed, especially in European countries. I feel sorry for the French, Germans, Danes, English, Swedes who long for the era of uniform ethnicity and the authentically “national” surnames. What emotions are elicited in German neo-Nazis that contend with the fact that a third of the national team has players from Turkish and African parents? Or in French ultranationalists who, before a game, listen to La Marseillaise, intonated by players who are not white and with surnames that suggest allegiance to another religion?
But not only the face has changed. More than 30 years ago, former US Secretary of State and football lover, Henry Kissinger, wrote that the character of a country was expressed in the game style of its national football team. Thus, Brazil typified the synthesis of improvisation and genius, Germany the amalgam of order, discipline and efficiency, Italy the proclivity to dramatic creativity, Argentina the colorful individuality repressed (temporarily) by the straitjacket, England predictability.
But who can now speak of a unique German, Brazilian, or Argentine style of play? If, as one commentator said, in the 1990 World Cup Germany overwhelmed everyone in the best style of a panzer division, in 2014 it danced everyone away with a unique libretto of precision, elegance and beauty that reminded many a viewer the Brazil of yesteryear.
Alas, we delude ourselves by thinking and feeling that we are unique, that distinctive features differentiate us from others. The problem arises when we ignore the richness of diversity and overstate the importance of differences. At the beginning of the 1980s I was an aficionado who played (I admit it: I was not good) for the Organization of American States team in a “friendly” tournament with teams from other international organizations and embassies located in Washington. My team was a South American mosaic. In the game against the Russians we started with 9 players because two (one of them from Chile) arrived late, two Uruguayan defenders (father and son) argued more bitterly than Chileans and Peruvians, and no knowledge of the language of Tolstoy was necessary to understand the terrible insults that Russian players proffered to each other.
Also, and probably without intending it, nationalism conceals deep frustrations and ambitions. The proud Peruvians who won a slot in the world cup after 36 years have produced a video that I find touching. With their rivals in mind, they warn who we are, what fiber we are made of, how much adversity we face and overcome, all of this evidenced in images that underline poverty, economic crises, airplane tragedies, abuse against women, natural disasters. In short, life is an uphill struggle, but it does not matter, because we made it, we are coming, we are here. So, get ready Denmark, get ready France, get ready Australia.
Too bad that the video misses the point that those responsible for the calamities are ourselves. It is also regrettably that one does not find images of presidents and politicians of reproachful behaviors that bear witness to a scourge that lacerates the national soul: corruption. Can one overcome a problem that is either ignored or tolerated?
At the home of José Antonio Quirós, one of my best friends in Washington, I met Per, an affable Dane in charge of managing purchases for the government of his country. Transparency and disposition to serve the public good override the temptations of illicit personal gain. We are not going to watch together the Peru – Denmark match but the Danes have already announced their intentions: the response to the Peruvian video is one with the Danish national anthem, its verse modified to deliver a message that exults in the beauty of Peruvian history and traditions. And it is sung by young people who attest to an ethnic diversity they did not have thirty years ago. How many Peruvians appreciate the beauty of this lesson?
It tempts to think that the tribe is strong, that nationalism places precise limits on globalization. But it is not unreasonable to suggest that the latter uses the allure of nationalism at will. Long before the ball starts rolling in the field of play, the wheels of commerce were spinning with the manufacture, sale and purchase of products and services that exalt national symbols. The business is massive because the millions and millions of consumers do not crave as much for individual satisfaction as for identification with “something” that in many mitigates feelings of separation or alienation. They identify themselves, or rather, they feel represented by a squad of eleven young people who temporarily shake them out of embarrassment, uncertainty, boredom or drowsiness.
For an entire month millions of people will be hypnotized in front of television screens, flood social media networks with expert comments, dream of the victory of one or the other team. But beware: as we are mesmerized by the game, both the mandarins of globalization (think of the handful of oil and gas companies responsible for climate change) and domestic politicians (think of congressmen who only seek their own benefit) will strike big. And we will let I happen not so much out of distraction or ignorance, but because numbing attachments to dazzling dreams are difficult to resist.
It cannot be otherwise even if we sense that, in our innermost heart, attachments are irremediably ephemeral. When the tournament ends the blues will be inevitable for all, including the nationals of the world champion. With the final whistle the tension between globalization and nationalism will become more visible and in many a person daily miseries and disappointments will be installed again. Not, I hope, in those who can navigate the games as a space for happy reflection, as a game that strengthens human bonds and that we can enjoy no matter who wins or loses.