In the World Cup, Nationalism Endures

9 MINS READJun 8, 2014 | 13:00 GMT
In the World Cup, Nationalism Endures
The World Cup trophy stands on display in London in March 2014.

Nearly 70,000 fans will pour into Sao Paulo's Corinthians Arena on June 12 to watch the opening match of the World Cup. Die-hard soccer fans will be watching the action on the field, and fans of political affairs will be watching Brazil, but most everyone will be paying attention in some way because the tournament itself has become a celebration of nations as much as a sporting event.

The World Cup is more than a soccer tournament; it's an occasion for all the nations of the world, at least those that qualify to its final stage, to determine which one produces the best athletes, the tightest teamwork and the most dominant style of play. Smaller nations fight to prove that they belong among the great powers. This is true for the competitors, but it's even truer for the hosts.

FIFA, international soccer's governing body that organizes the quadrennial tournament, often selects emerging countries to host the World Cup. South Africa hosted in 2010, and the next two tournaments are slated to be held in Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022). For emerging countries, hosting the World Cup and other international events is an opportunity to show that they can provide sound infrastructure and adequate security — in short, that they belong among the world's major powers. By all accounts, South Africa passed its test. Many observers have raised serious doubts about whether Brazil will do the same.

Brazil has spent more than $11 billion on projects related to the World Cup, expenditures that have outraged many Brazilian citizens, leading to protests and instances of open conflict with security forces. Nao Vai Ter Copa, or "There Won't be a World Cup," became a rallying cry for the protesters. Of the money spent, $3.6 billion has been appropriated for building or renovating a dozen stadiums. But as of the end of May, work was still being done on at least three stadiums. Speaking about the impending deadline, a partner at a Sao Paulo sports business consulting group told The Wall Street Journal, "This makes me ashamed because it just confirms negative stereotypes of Brazil."

Some of the stadiums and surrounding infrastructure may not be completed, and there could be violent protests leading up to and through the tournament. But neither of these things will disrupt the execution of the World Cup.

Hosting the World Cup is an opportunity for any country, but the 2014 matches may present a unique opportunity to Brazilian soccer. Indeed, the country has a chance to redeem itself for a mistake made decades ago, an event known as the Maracanazo, or "The Maracana Blow," which many consider to be a blight on Brazil's national memory.

Brazil hosted the World Cup once before, in 1950. It was the fourth-ever World Cup and the first in 12 years, the tournament having been interrupted by World War II. Brazil's best performance in the World Cup to that point was third place in 1938, but the team was the favorite going into 1950. The Brazilians cruised their way to the final, winning all but one match — a tie with Switzerland — by a combined score of 21-4 en route to the final. There they met Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, at the time the largest stadium in the world. It had been built specifically to host the World Cup, and it was renovated for this year's event — it will host the final, in fact. With 11 minutes remaining in the final, Uruguay scored the go-ahead goal in front of nearly 200,000 spectators. Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta would later call the defeat a national tragedy "because it happened at the beginning of a decade in which Brazil was looking to assert itself as a nation with a great future."

The team went to great lengths to wash away that defeat. The roster was turned over in the wake of the loss, and they even turned in their uniforms — a white shirt with a blue collar — for the now famous yellow and green. Brazil was eliminated in the quarterfinals in the next World Cup, but in 1958 in Sweden, it won its first of five championships. Today the Brazilians have the most successful national soccer team — they're actually the only team to win the World Cup on four different continents — but it's possible that a win at home in 2014 would do more for the country's psyche than any past title.

Sports and Nationalism

Those who believe this is an over-romanticized notion should consider the history of the World Cup. Whether it's a country's desire to show that it can pull off hosting a major international event or a people's desire to show that they can compete with the world's superpowers — even if it's only on the soccer pitch — nationalism is the common thread. The World Cup is intrinsically a nationalistic event, and it has often been exploited for nationalistic or political ends.

Before Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympics to flaunt his country's post-World War I revival, Benito Mussolini promoted fascism via the 1934 World Cup; the final game was actually played in the National Stadium of the National Fascist Party. Argentina hosted the 1978 tournament only two years after a coup d'etat installed a military junta; the World Cup helped steer the focus away from the country's Dirty War and the mounting numbers of "disappeared" dissidents.

Political events have also seriously affected the World Cup throughout its history. The 1950 World Cup was held in South America partly because European governments preferred to rebuild their war-torn countries. The four national teams from the United Kingdom almost didn't participate in 1982, when Spain hosted the tournament amid the Falklands War. The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia created 23 new national teams. Nelson Mandela famously used rugby and soccer to bring post-apartheid South Africa together.

It's an interesting relationship between nationalism and the World Cup. "The World Cup is a festival of globalization," says Franklin Foer, an American journalist who wrote the 2004 book How Soccer Explains the World. Over the course of the tournament, soccer is a common language, and fans from all over the world flock to the host nation to watch the games. "This is exactly the way that globalization was supposed to function in the eyes of its champions," Foer says.

But globalization, of course, was supposed to diminish nationalism. Trade, immigration and technology make the world smaller or flatter, depending on your metaphor of choice. National barriers are broken down and the more we interact, the more commonalities we tend to find. The distinction between "us" and "the other" is blurred. The organizers of the World Cup have bought in: This year's theme song is called We Are One.

But what's lost here is that "international" is not the same as "post-national." The World Cup actually shows that globalization and nationalism can coexist. And in reality, they have to. At its core, nationalism is the love for and obligation to the community to which you were born. For globalization to overcome the nation-state, religion and war, it must overcome the fundamental impulse to love one's own. "Humans crave identifying with a group," Foer wrote. "To deny this craving is to deny human nature and human dignity."

A Fundamental Understanding

It's not just the World Cup; global events over the past year are proof enough that interdependence has not brought an end to nationalism. In Europe, an economic crisis became a political crisis, dividing the European Union and creating space for the rise of right-wing nationalist political parties. Russian nationalism has featured prominently — if not as a cause, then as a justification — for actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In East Asia, China has tried to exploit nationalism for its own political purposes, while Japan is flirting with nationalism as it normalizes its military.

Nationalism is a powerful force. It provides a sense of place, history and identity, and it has survived for a reason. And it is deeply engrained in all sports, but especially in one like soccer, which is played by nearly every country on the planet.

Sometimes, the sentiment is taken to extremes. Rinus Michels, who coached the Dutch national team that reached the World Cup final in 1974 and won the 1988 European Championship, compared soccer to war (though he would later insist that the quote was taken out of context). The first president of Croatia, Franjo Tudman, remarked during the 1998 World Cup that "Football victories shape a nation's identity as much as wars."

There is a long legacy of memorializing especially heated soccer matches as battles. A 1934 meeting in the London district of Highbury between England and Italy — the Italian team's first match since winning the 1934 World Cup — was nicknamed the Battle of Highbury. Other World Cup matches received the same treatment: a tie in the quarterfinals in 1938 between Brazil and Czechoslovakia became the Battle of Bordeaux; Hungary's victory over Brazil in the quarterfinals in 1954 became the Battle of Berne; host nation Chile shut out Italy in 1962 in the Battle of Santiago; and most recently, in 2006, the Battle of Nuremberg ended with Portugal's 1-0 win over the Netherlands.

Though a little comical, such comparisons may be well founded. A 2014 study by Andrew Bertoli, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, considered that nationalism tends to surge in countries that qualify for the World Cup. Looking at data from 1958-2010, Bertoli found that countries whose teams qualified took military action more often — and more violently — than those that did not. Bertoli managed to replicate his findings in other FIFA regional soccer championships.

The World Cup reminds us not of nationalism's obsolescence but its endurance. Nationalism will rear its head again over the coming weeks in the stadiums and streets of Brazil. Songs will be sung in London's pubs if the English team advances, as expected, beyond its admittedly difficult group. (The British Home Office recently announced a decision to allow pubs to stay open late during England's matches.) Chants of "Deutschland!" will ring out in Germany. And Americans, arguably the most apathetic of all soccer fans, will still tune in impressive numbers: More U.S. households watched Ghana eliminate the U.S. national team in the 2010 World Cup (19.4 million) than watched the average game in either the 2013 NBA Finals (17.7 million) or World Series (14.9 million).

A national team's success imbues fans with not only personal satisfaction but also a sense of communal pride and validation. Nationalism gives people what few other things can: a shared sense of belonging in something bigger than themselves. It is a powerful force that, if left unchecked, can become dangerous, but it is fundamental to understanding our place and ourselves.

Editor's note: A previous version of this analysis misstated the site of the 1982 World Cup, which was held in Spain.

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