Kickoff: The World Cup


On Sports

Qatar Airways. Wikimedia Commons, LIcensed under CC0 4.0.

The World Cup kicks off today in Qatar. To many people the entire extravaganza is one giant laundromat, a sports-wash of global proportions, designed to rinse clean the dirty laundry accumulated during the gulf state’s decade-long preparation for the event. An estimated six thousand five hundred migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka were reportedly killed during the stadiums’ construction in the last ten years. To memorialize them, the Danish team will wear subdued colors and hold black in reserve as its third strip. Yet despite Qatar’s grim politics and dubious human rights record, particularly with regard to LGBTQ rights for both residents and visitors (criticism vigorously rejected by Qatar’s rulers as “slander”), FIFA projects that five billion of us on this dying planet will feel compelled to watch.

This is my sixteenth World Cup as a sentient soccer being. In my lifetime, I’m discounting the 1950 event in Brazil—I was four months old and kicking, but not goal-ward—as well as the 1954 tournament in Switzerland, when either my parents kept it from me or we didn’t have a TV, or we did but it didn’t show the games. I’m also skipping the one in Sweden in 1958, when I might or might not have watched seventeen-year-old Pelé score twice in Brazil’s 5–2 victory in the final over Sweden; my memory isn’t speaking loudly enough on that one (see V. Nabokov, goalkeeper for Trinity College, Cambridge, circa 1919–22). No, the World Cup began in joyful delirium for me around when Philip Larkin insisted it did for sexual intercourse in general—“between the end of the Chatterley Ban and the Beatles’ first L.P.” My twelve-year-old self sat stunned, alone (no one in my northwest London family had any interest in football), and perfectly happy, as the Battle of Santiago raged, players from Chile and Italy kicking one another up in the air, landing a few punches, and creating a mayhem that required police intervention on four occasions. The English referee of that game, Ken Aston, is the man who went on to invent yellow and red cards.

Fourteen of my World Cups I watched or will watch on TV. The other two I watched in person—in England 1966, the only year that England won, and in the U.S.A. in 1994, when I traveled the country covering the games, sugar-high on Snickers and Coca-Cola (two of the event’s primary sponsors), for The New Yorker. What I remember most from that monthlong soccerpalooza, aside from Diego Maradona’s brilliant play during a Faustian effort to recapture his lost youth, unfortunately with the help of an ephedrine cocktail, is an enigmatic sign held up by German fans before their country’s game against Bulgaria at Giants Stadium. It read simply, IT’S NOT A TRICK, IT’S GERMANY. The packed stadiums were secured by overzealous security personnel stripping fans of anything that could conceivably be transformed into a weapon. As one of the guards told me, “You can throw a pretzel and you can hurt someone.” In contrast to the raucous crowds inside the stadiums, the cities beyond were more or less devoid of any kind of soccer atmosphere or activity. In Chicago, where the tournament began on June 17, the very day that OJ led the police down an LA highway in his Ford Bronco, it was all Michael Jordan 24-7.

Enough about the past. We are about to step into Qatar’s balmy winter, average 70 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit, with high humidity to be dispersed by serious AC in the outdoor stadiums. Of the more than two hundred national teams that set out on this journey four years ago, only thirty-two remain, eight groups of four, the top two in each group to move on to the knockout stage. The games will run for almost a month, culminating in a final on December 18.. As is almost always the case, Brazil is favored to win, followed by Argentina, France, England, and Spain, and you never rule out Germany. All these countries have lifted the trophy before, and wouldn’t it be great if someone else crashed the party? After all, Croatia (population 3.8 million) made it to the finals the last time out, and the ageless midfield genius Luka Modrić still runs their show. There is always Kevin De Bruyne’s Belgium (population 11.5 million) or, for a real long shot, Africa’s best hope, Senegal.

Let’s talk about the “Group of Death.” This is the sobriquet pulled from the Big Book of Soccer Clichés to what is supposedly the toughest group to scramble out of and into the round of sixteen. In Qatar, based on current world rankings, that is Group B, which features Iran, Wales, and the U.S.A., along with England. One might think it would have to be Group E, which foregrounds two former winners, Spain and Germany, although admittedly alongside two weaker teams, Costa Rica and Japan. But, no, B it is, and it’s already been group-of-deathed to death.

Iran powered through the Asian qualifying groups to make it into the finals, and they are ranked number twenty-three in the world, not bad at all, but the lowest ranking of the teams in Group B. And nine places below the good ol’ U.S.A., which has a genuinely competitive team this time around, with a tranche of young quality players, like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Giovanni Reyna, all of whom operate at the highest levels of the top European leagues. However, Qatar’s location across the Persian Gulf should provide a lift for the Iranian team: as recently as April, the website Iran International reported that all kinds of transport deals had been struck with their Middle Eastern neighbor, including upwards of four hundred flights, to bring one hundred thousand Iranians across the water on a journey that takes barely an hour and has the potential to transform Iran’s matches into something akin to home games. But there’s a problem: the team may yet get booted out before the first whistle sounds, and even if it doesn’t, a pall will hang over Iran’s games. The current uprising in Iran is a real test of FIFA’s knee-jerk pusillanimity. Soccer’s governing body already let Iran slide into the tournament by turning a blind eye to the fact that Iranian women, while not officially banned, have effectively been denied entrance to domestic soccer matches for forty years. In August, to mollify FIFA, five hundred women, including the families and friends of the players, were sold tickets to watch Esteghlal Tehran play Mes Kerman. The status of the Iranian team and the number of people who will cross the Gulf (all men?) to watch the games are both in flux. (The last time Iran played the U.S.A. in a World Cup, in France in 1998, in what Wikipedia insists is commonly referred to as “the mother of all games,” Iran won 2–1. In a pregame gesture of something less than love but more than terminal enmity, the Iranian team gifted white roses to Team U.S.A.)

Even if they emerge unscathed from Group B., the U.S.A. won’t win the tournament. As we know, Americans generally have a tough time with losers. Will the TV and streaming audience stay in their seats? It’s worth asking, because the atypical shift to winter in western Asia means the World Cup now falls smack in the middle of the NFL season and the climactic conclusion of college football, a stern test of the durability of American exceptionalism and soccer’s ability to compete with the concussive beat on the gridiron. But there’s so much worth watching for: it’s twilight of the idols time for the two dominant geniuses of the last twenty years, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and who doesn’t want some graceful valedictory moment from each of them? Ronaldo rising at the far post to head back across the goal and into the net; Messi curling a free kick into the top corner with his magic left foot. Then there’s the likelihood of surprise, a player emerging from relative obscurity into clouds of glory as Pak Doo-ik did when he scored the only goal in North Korea’s 1–0 victory over Italy in the 1966 World Cup: the elephantine memory of the fanatic holds fast to such moments. One caveat: Yuval Harari has identified the World Cup as a rare spot on the map where globalism and nationalism happily hold hands, but if your preference is for club over nation (as mine firmly is: Tottenham Hotspur before England), then you will watch in a state of anxiety, akin to that of a helicopter parent at a youth game, lest your club’s most vital players get injured while playing abroad.

The spectators who make up the crowd will emerge from their hotels and the thousand “Bedouin-style” tents, luxury and otherwise, pitched in the desert, or disembark from cruise ships berthed in the gulf, and enter the booze-free stadiums. The infinite air conditioning will hum, perhaps singing its own song the way it does in Warren Zevon’s “Desperados Under the Eaves.” Will the crowd have enough lung capacity to overcome it? Or will we ask ourselves, remembering the insane racket generated by thousands of deafening three-foot horns in South Africa in 2010, Où sont les vuvuzelas of yesteryear?

As for farewells, I have a friend who gauges his mortality by counting how many World Cups he thinks he has left.


Jonathan Wilson’s new novel The Red Balcony will be published by Schocken in February 2023.