It's been a week since France won this year's World Cup in a gripping championship match against Croatia. Now that the dust has settled, it's an opportune moment to reflect on the tournament past and to look ahead to future editions. For some, the end of the tournament is likely a relief, bringing to a close the associated monthlong frenzy in the media, both traditional and social. For my fellow soccer fanatics, the World Cup hangover can be difficult to shake: We realize it's time to get on with our lives, but would just a little bit more be so bad? Out of respect to the former group, I've attempted to keep my postmortem brief, with some final hair-of-the-dog thoughts on the geopolitical undercurrents of the recent World Cup and some anticipatory musings on the themes emerging from the next two tournaments in Qatar and in North America.
The Final Whistle
By most accounts — both sporting and political — the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia was a success. The games were entertaining, the new Video Assistant Referee system worked, and not a single doping test came back positive (though we know to take this last tidbit with a grain of salt). As I've written previously about the Olympics, the long-term geopolitical effects of a sporting extravaganza can take a while to manifest. In the short term, however, I agree with the recent analysis of Stratfor contributor Linas Jegelevicius that the tournament offered Russian President Vladimir Putin and his administration temporary cover from bad PR at home and abroad.
Of the geopolitical storylines that played out in the tournament final, nationalism and national identity were front and center in coverage and commentary on both the French and Croatian teams. The dominant topics were, of course, no great surprise; they were, after all, the subjects of the last two Geopolitics of Sports columns. What was notable about the conversations surrounding the final match, though, was that they provided a textbook example of sport's ability to fit diverse narratives across the spectrum of political ideologies.
We can start with the valiant runners-up, the Croatian team, which put together the most entertaining run of the tournament and outplayed the eventual champions for long stretches of the final (yes, it's a cruel game). Despite the team's roster, stacked with big-name stars from the world's top clubs, the most recognizable Croatian of the tournament was not Luka Modric, who might be the planet's best soccer player. Instead, it was President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Clad in her nation's trademark red-and-white checkerboard, Grabar-Kitarovic became the media darling of the entire event, praised as much for flying economy class between matches as she was for her rain-soaked, emotional embraces of players from both teams at the end of the final. A slew of Americans, meanwhile, took to Twitter or penned hasty op-eds to contrast Grabar-Kitarovic's enthusiasm with U.S. President Donald Trump's contentious relationship with many U.S. athletes. Given the silo effect of social media, I doubt most of these commentators saw the smaller volume of pieces criticizing Grabar-Kitarovic, analyses that position her behavior at the World Cup as smart campaigning and suggest that she shares Trump's shrewd understanding of the media and of populist photo ops.
Similar dynamics of interpretation unfolded with the French team, a diverse squad full of players of African and Arab descent. Many in the West celebrated France's success as a victory for and an argument in favor of open borders, inclusivity and diversity. Their sentiments met with some humorless responses that Croatia hadn't lost to "France" but to "Africa." At the more extreme end of the spectrum, some observers heralded the national "purity" of the Croatian team and rehashed tired (and flawed) arguments about racial difference and athletic performance.
But perhaps the most bizarre layer of this digital colloquium on nationalism and identity was that another version of the "France or Africa?" narrative divided many of the people celebrating the French team's diversity. One side argued that the win represented the first World Cup victory for an African nation, while the other pushed against this framing as undermining a diverse, yet unified, French national identity. Yes, reading through the linguistic gymnastics of this commentary was as exhausting as it sounds, but the sentiments certainly felt symptomatic of the current tensions between international populist movements and the global liberal order.
From Russia With Football
The closing formalities of this year's World Cup included a symbolic exchange in which Putin handed a match ball over to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, whose country will host the next World Cup in 2022. Qatar will be the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament, but to call its bid and preparations controversial would be an understatement. Not only does the event's Wikipedia page have a section on the related controversies, but it also links to a standalone article on the site dedicated exclusively to "2022 World Cup Controversies," ranging from issues of workers' rights and safety to cases of corruption and bribery.
Qatar and FIFA have weathered quite a storm since the country locked down the bid in 2010, and at times over the past eight years, the Gulf state looked as if it might lose the rights to the tournament. Nevertheless, in the haze of post-World Cup euphoria, things appear to be moving full steam ahead today. Qatar, in fact, is ahead of schedule on construction and infrastructure developments, partly because it has scaled back some of its more ambitious plans. The PR machine is, predictably, already churning, touting the tournament as an opportunity to unite the Arab world. Given how shrewdly Qatar has navigated its neighbors' blockade over the past year, I'm curious to see whether the tournament serves as an olive branch or further strengthens the increasingly independent Qatari national identity, one built as much on soft power outlets like Al Jazeera and beIN Sports as on traditional diplomacy.
As many observers expected, FIFA capitalized on the excitement of this year's tournament to announce a radical shift in the World Cup calendar: The 2022 games will start in late November to avoid the scorching summer heat. While the temperatures will be more tolerable for players and attendees, the shift could jeopardize attendance numbers, since fans historically have taken advantage of their summer holidays to travel to the tournament. Spectators from the United States, for instance, made up the second-largest group of ticket-buyers at this year's tournament (after local Russians), even though the U.S. team didn't make the cut. Qatar will have a hard time replicating this feat when the tournament dates conflict with family-focused fall and winter holidays. Add to that the relative lack of interest in Qatar as a tourist destination, and attendance could turn into a major concern for the host country and FIFA alike.
At this point, the only thing that could derail Qatar's World Cup would be a war in the region or a corruption scandal so major that even FIFA couldn't shake it.
Furthermore, many in the sporting establishment decried the schedule shift because it places the tournament squarely in the middle of competitions in the world's top professional leagues. It remains to be seen how the leagues will respond, whether they'll take a winter break or simply continue without the World Cup players. The traditionalists have circled the wagons, declaring that this disruption in the global soccer calendar must surely be the last straw that will drive FIFA to strip Qatar of the tournament. I would be shocked if this is the case. At this point, the only thing that could threaten the tournament's viability would be a war in the region or a corruption scandal so major that even FIFA couldn't shake it. The traditionalists will, of course, come to terms with the new calendar and tune in like they always do.
And on to North America
In the spirit of the forecasting Stratfor is known for, we can also look beyond 2022 to the 2026 World Cup. As expected, FIFA confirmed on the eve of this year's tournament North America's joint victory over Morocco's lone competing bid. The continent's three largest countries will share hosting duty for the early round matches, but the United States is the clear winner of the bunch, since it will host all matches from the quarterfinals on. After the tournaments in Russia and Qatar, the North American event is likely to offer a breather from many of the sociopolitical controversies of its predecessors. That's probably why FIFA has declared it the first World Cup to include updated, explicit human rights expectations for the hosts.
While the United States, Canada and Mexico will surely meet these standards, they could still create some geopolitical storylines beyond the nationalism and metaphor-making we have grown accustomed to. In light of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's election victory in Mexico and Trump's promises to return to the negotiating table over the North American Free Trade Agreement after midterm elections in November, tensions on the continent are riding high. Working toward a successful joint World Cup, however, could be just the ticket to assuage some of the recent strife between the United States and its neighbors.
Finally, FIFA has made sure to trigger the traditionalists yet again by greatly expanding the number of teams competing in the North American tournament. The 2026 World Cup will feature 48 teams — 16 more than usual — representing almost a quarter of FIFA's 211 member nations. (That's a friendly reminder that there are more countries in FIFA than in the United Nations.) The immediate response has been to point to the poor performance in this year's tournament of teams like Panama's national squad as an argument against expanding the World Cup; similar arguments arose in 1982, when the games grew from 16 teams to 24, and in 1998, when they went to 32. As with the date change for Qatar's tournament, I don't need a crystal ball to tell you that the traditionalists will bicker for the next eight years and then tune in to enjoy the games, possibly on some devices that we can't yet imagine.