Soccer as Politics by Other Means
Why the world's biggest sporting event isn't just about sports
There was a moment last week in the World Cup when a midfielder from Saudi Arabia lined up a shot from the top of the box against Poland. It was a pivotal point in the match: a goal would have tied the match 1-1. But at the World Cup, those moments carry far more weight than mere athletic pressure: I wondered if the Saudi player couldn’t help but feel that the hopes and dreams of an entire nation swung with his right leg, if he realized that his success would be magnified millions-fold as a national achievement.
Then he missed… and as the broadcast showed Saudi supporters immediately swing from eager anticipation to deflated disappointment, I felt let down myself. As a fan of the sport, I wanted to see a level score in an even match. And if I was rooting for anyone to win, it was the underdog. (After an astonishing upset of Argentina in their first match, Saudi Arabia lost to Poland and Mexico and finished last in their group.)
But then I caught myself: Do I really want to cheer the representatives of a country whose “absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties” and “relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power”? (So reported Freedom House last year, placing Saudi Arabia in the bottom 10 of the world’s countries as ranked by political rights and civil liberties.)
On the other hand: Aren’t they just athletes pushing themselves to compete at their sport’s highest level? Isn’t it admirable to do that for one’s national team, risking injury that might derail a lucrative club career? And maybe the pitch is a place where they think they can represent their oppressed countrymen and women, embodying a kind of bodily freedom that stands in obvious contrast to the restrictive practices of their rulers?
Granted: I overthink everything, even grown men kicking a ball around a patch of grass. But I do think the World Cup illustrates the truth that sports is never just about sports. Like war, soccer is politics by other means.
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