What Soccer Says About Us

Gary Younge in The Nation:

Sport can only do so much, and as a metaphor it can be crude and problematic. The nationalism it produces can be vile, violent and susceptible to manipulation. Immediately after Egypt won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006, the government raised food prices. “It was the only time the government thought they could get away with it,” argues Steve Bloomfield in his book Africa United. “And they were right.” After Cameroonian President Paul Biya stole elections in 1992, a general strike was called on the day before a World Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe. Biya announced that if Cameroon won, the next day would be a national holiday. The strike was called off.

Finally, having a national identity funneled through an exclusively male tournament (women’s soccer is growing but still has nowhere near the cultural reach) is inherently limiting.

But for all that, the symbolic significance cannot be denied, lest symbols, in the words of George Carlin, be left to the symbol-minded. During a sensitive period in the Ivory Coast after a peace deal had been signed, Didier Drogba, the national star, insisted that one of the qualifying games be played in the north where regional alienation was considerable, and many argued it made a big difference. In England a new generation of nonwhites has started to embrace the national team in a way that was rare for their forebears.