An Expat's Perspective on a Game of Nations
I moved to Berlin from New York in 2014, just after Germany won the World Cup. I cheered for them that summer in anticipation, envisioning the immense joy and excitement in a city that already promised such things. I relished in a certain in-group belonging, proud somehow to say it was there that I was moving. The national flags were taken down by the time I arrived - things were back to normal, and patriotism is Germany is verboten. Fair enough - the nation has much to be remorseful for, and excessive pride in group identity – nationalism – can lead to terrible outcomes. But during the World Cup, people of all nations are permitted to cheer together for themselves, to channel this natural urge for collective identity into healthy competition. As an expat from the States, I find it fascinating.
The World Cup celebrates Earth's most popular sport. It’s inclusive in a particular way: less than the overwrought Olympics, but more than any other global competition. It's a neutralizer, a common ground, and indeed a beautiful game. I say this without watching football/soccer otherwise, but I can understand the nuances when paying attention. I can find pleasure in simple passing. There is plenty that still bothers me: the inherent luck and unfairness, victories decided by penalty kicks, the multimillionaire celebrity athletes, the mismatching jerseys not corresponding to team identities, the flops and fake injuries... and of course the heights of corruption by its governing organization, FIFA. So what is it that I like so much about the World Cup? I think it’s because of its participants.
I have an affinity for most things European. This subcontinent isn't obsessed with being the best, and yet it has what I consider to be the best in lifestyle, governance, art, music, architecture, philosophy and cultural history, as well as its political systems of multiple parties and complex alliances. The EU, as opposed to the US, prioritizes work-life balance. But another concept lies at the heart of the EU, which I think helps explain the continent’s success, and it might sound controversial: it’s the fundamental idea of the nation-state. Nowhere else in the world is this concept so thoroughly practiced, and the result has been unprecedented peace and prosperity.
Nation-states sound bad to us these days, with overtones of nationalism, especially to Americans. The concept is a legit existential threat to the USA, which is, after all, many nations under one government. New England, Appalachia, Cascadia, the Frontier, the Great Lakes – these are self-determined regions that compete (under the guise of statehood) for "national" (more accurately "federal") attention and influence. And threads of nationalism within it – white or black, Californian or Texan – threaten the Union. China, India and Russia are similar multinational states, and to me it's no wonder why these countries are mired in problems. They're too big. Something Europe started figuring out in the 20th century is that people naturally group together, and that they flourish under political sovereignty. Empires that assert dominion over various peoples are fundamentally problematic. Nation-states are the natural alternative to empires – let people self-determine their governments.
Of course it’s not exactly easy to ascertain what qualifies as a nation. Where are borders properly drawn? It's a harsh and still-uncomfortable consideration, and a complex one: who counts as a nation? Catalonia? Kosovo? Bavaria? Wallonia? Belgium? Scotland?
Well, whether or not Scotland and England can prosper together as a United Kingdom is a tricky, annoying problem to solve, and the neighbors continually debate it, but on the football pitch, it's clear: England represents the English.
England is a hard team for some people to cheer for. Their fans are among the most obnoxious, as are their tourists. They come into smaller countries like they own the place, and surely their dying empire partly to blame. I’m crassly stereotyping I suppose, but it’s all in good European fun to joke around with. If I were British, I’d laugh it off, and I could easily imagine putting my confused pride into the game, simultaneously making fun of the other countries, football a sort of proxy game.
England lost in the semifinals this year to Croatia, a country a fascinating example of a self-determinism. In the recent 1990s Croatia stubbornly fought for independence from Yugoslavia – the United Kingdom of the Balkans – producing much unfortunate violence. Are the Croats really so different from their neighbors, the Serbs and Bosnians? Wasn't a united South-Slavia a beautiful concept? Regardless of my outsider perspective, I innately respect any group of people who self-determine as such, and seek their independence. Pragmatism and convenience are other considerations, as well as bloodshed, and those factors should be weighed accordingly. But in the end, there’s a place now called Croatia, and it’s part of the EU, UN and FIFA organization. The Dalmatian coast also happens to be incredibly beautiful – one of my favorite parts of the world – so they have that going for them too. And then there’s the spectacle of seeing the underdog win. Upon entering the final, there was much buzz about this team.
There’s pain involved as well. There's the pain of England losing, embarrassed on the international stage, expected to win as the favorite, and with hopes of the cup “coming home”. It probably compounds their Brexit embarrassment. England is a proud country, and its loss is surely difficult.
Germans are more modest. Germany apologizes for its historical damages more so than any other nation. It didn’t even make it out of group play this year, and one has to wonder if its own scandal on the pitch has something to do with it. Ilkay Gündogan plays for the national team, was born in the Rheine-Ruhr region, but created political outrage when posing with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It went further than a mere picture: the footballer signed a jersey to the hostile dictator: “With respect to my president.” But isn’t Angela Merkel the true governing representative of all German players and citizens? One would think, but with Turks not exactly assimilating fully into German society, it makes one wonder to which nation a second-generation player really belongs. Immigration is complicated.
Such problems aren’t an issue for Japan, whose ethnic makeup remains over 98% Japanese. That homogenous nation-state is less apologetic than Germany for its 20th century aggressions, but its fans are easily the most gracious. In their heartbreaking loss to Belgium (a conflicted, made-up country comprised of its national neighbors), the fans stayed to clean the whole stadium. Japan and Belgium are both fascinating. So is perennial favorite Brazil – that team features perhaps the most reviled star player, whose flops become meme legend. Latin America is the other football powerhouse continent, and its pain in recent years are probably more pronounced, its culture distinctly of interest.
I like to study nations. I like the story behind each one. I like attaching my fleeting allegiances to things about them – the humble power of Germany, memories of the sunlit Croatian coast, the street parties and parades of Brazil. This is why I like the game so much. It lets us all bask in specific groups of people, how they play the game but also how they represent their home and customs. The sport is like tourism, a gateway into worldly topics. It’s something we're so afraid to do in politics. The World Cup is nationalism made less toxic.
France is my favorite team. I can’t speak too much about how they play, but I can talk about the three colors, the food, Sartre and Camus, Duchamp, Bataille, du Gaul, Godard and Brigitte Bardot. Nothing is more romantic to me than French culture, and somehow it shines through the athletes on the field. My girlfriend lives in Paris. I visit often, surrounding myself with the beautiful architecture and and language. I spent some weeks of the World Cup in French brasseries, fantasizing about moving there and becoming Parisian myself, watching their victories while Germany was defeated. France looked a bit shabby in group play, but elevated their game as the competition demanded. Drinking wine, eating frites and pâté, it was easy to get into the spirit of Les Bleus.
France is mired in tricky politics these days. Should a religious veil be allowed in a commons so vehemently secular? How does the nation maintain its identity in the face of mass immigration? What does it mean to be French anyway? Real life is complicated. But the nation can cheer for itself on the pitch, imagining its own image and glory, just as I can. France has a diverse team – a product of their historical colonialism. But the team is not multicultural, exactly. They are all French. That differs from the attitudes of the US and the UK, which proudly announce a multicultural tapestry, “a nation of many”.
France’s ethnically diverse team stands in stark contrast to its finals opponent. Croatia is a team marked by an unabashed sense of nationalism that is indeed white, Catholic, Slavic and perhaps even right-wing. It’s nothing new or shocking – Japan and Russia and many others feel a similar homogenous enthusiasm, regardless of political winds. I cannot help but take note that the 2018 final pitted a multi-ethic nation against a homogenous one. Ironically, in an era marked by pointed political correctness, it was France that bore much of the scrutiny.
France won. It was a jubilant day. The Parisian streets screamed, ablaze. Thereafter, The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah made the point that Africa had won the World Cup. It was a point echoed by my French friend of Burundian descent – he was cheering for his team indeed because it had the most black people on it. It smacks of identity politics, but fair enough – don’t we cheer for our own? But what is our own anyway?
I watched the final game in Berlin with my international friends. There was a big screen in Tempelhof Field and we situated ourselves between a large camp of Croatian fans and a swath of French visitors and residents. We ourselves (German, Australian, English and American) felt similar to most of the crowd there: may the best team win. The whole thing felt very European, and I was proud of it. I am American, or more precisely: Californian and New Yorker. But there’s something about national identity that leaves me somewhat ambivalent, perhaps because I am indeed a mix, from a land of mixture. I am an expat, a free agent, an other. I have a unique multi-ethnic heritage. I am proud of the melting pot that is much of America, but I am also critical of much of it. I find it fun to be in Germany, cheering for France, a traveler who identifies more with ideas than blood. I like to ponder what identity is, how we choose our teams and allegiances, and to let the beer-filled conversation go there if it chooses. I suppose football is just a game, but it’s played on every continent, and truly is a unifying sport, when it comes down to it. We’re all just human in the end, but it’s fun to celebrate the differences.