The World Cup is Not Xenophobic

We’re only three days into the World Cup, and already I’m tired of the drone. I speak not of the Vuzuvelas, but of the naysayers who dismiss the World Cup as being somehow xenophobic.

We’re only three days into the World Cup, and already I’m tired of the drone.  I speak not of the Vuzuvelas, but of the naysayers who dismiss the World Cup as being somehow xenophobic.  Laurie Penny was at it last week, now quoted approvingly by fellow Orwell Prize nominee Madame Miaow.    Even my friend Ste Curran was at it earlier, and I expected better from him.

These curmudgeons assume that any time two teams from different sides line up against each other, it is inherently warlike.  They assume that whenever anyone chooses to support a team based purely on nationality, they are indulging in a form of blind patriotism akin to the worst excesses of political nationalism.  And while the tone of these writings is, yes, a little knowing and light-hearted, I detect real sentiments of contempt in what they say.  How strange that these writers cannot perceive the knowingness of the football fans at which they sneer, the tongue-in-cheek tone with which real sports fans approach their passion.

In particular, the charge of ‘patriotism’, or of any kind of ‘ugliness’ does not stand up to even the most cursory of examinations.  Christ, you do not even need to go to South Africa to do this – the evidence is right there on the TV screens.  See those idiot fans, cheering and leering behind the po-faced TV reporters?  Look closely at their shirts, their face-paints, and you will see the colours of many teams, of many countries.  The fun of a football tournament like the World Cup lies as much in the meeting of new people from distant shores, as it does in actually watching the game itself. The rowdy fans at Rustenberg and elsewhere know this – it is why they bother.

I think that it is precisely because football is “only a game” you find its purest form in the international competitions, not the club game.  In the latter, I think the naysayers have a point – the excessive sums spent during tough economic times on ringers from overseas does seem obscene, bizarre and unsporting.  By contrast, managers of national teams are limited in who they can pick.  They cannot buy in new talent from elsewhere.  In this sense, their situation is closer to the game as most of us play it – you’re stuck with whoever is available.  At school, teams are usually organised arbitrarily along classroom divisions, or else by means of the dreaded ‘line-up’ so despised in the childhoods of the sportingly challenged.  Either way, the talent pool is limited and the team is stuck with whoever they are given.  In pub and amateur football (or any kind of team sport, really) you are similarly limited to whoever can get off work or out of bed in time for the 10:30 kick-off.  Likewise in kids’ football, which tends to operate on a subscription model over which the person picking the team has zero control.

The fun of most sport, indeed, of most games, lies in these arbitrary constraints.   We agree on some rules to abide by, and set ourselves other random constraints (such as the players, the cards, the dice)… and then we try our damnedest to win.  The fact it is all made up; that we have chosen to spend our time like this; that the outcome does not actually matter to our lives one iota; that it is entirely and necessarily divorced from our day-to-day existence:  That is where the ‘sport’ exists.  The fact that it doesn’t matter is precisely the point, because it is an escape from things that do matter.  Pointing out the futility of the exercise, usually by reference to the well worn “grown men kicking a pig’s bladder” cliche, is like the irritating snoot who tells everyone else how the magician does his tricks, thus spoiling the show.

Cheating in sport is despicable because it similarly breaks the suspension of disbelief in which the rest of us have colluded.  Related, I think, is the way in which the obnoxious amounts of money spent on footballers’ transfer fees leaves a sour aftertaste: buying in new players seems like an attempt to rig the initial conditions.  The presence of Kevin Pieterson in the England Cricket team makes many of us uneasy, despite his undoubted talent… because switching nationalities looks like an attempt to rig the initial conditions.

Football is so popular because most of us have the emotional intelligence to be able to buy in to the spectacle.  The utter frivolity of what is at stake is the perfect excuse for a great big global party, in which people of all ages, from all continents and from all religions, can participate.  The simplicity of the rules means literally everyone can understand what is going on.  Yes, there have been idiots who use football as an excuse for violence… but the game was always the excuse, and not the cause of that particular type of stupidity.  These men do not define the sport, and they are a dying breed.  In their place steps an ever growing number of sports fans who just want to watch the game with their friends, old and new.

Are we wasting too much media attention on the unfoldings of a meaningless tournament in South Africa?  I find it hard to be annoyed.  Once every four years, the eyes of all of humanity turn towards the same place.  Everyone, whether they like it or not, is distracted by the same thing.  It is not religious, it is not violent, and it cannot be bought.  Its a delightful phenomenon, one we should cherish.

Football fans from Germany and England celebrate in Cologne during the 2006 World Cup Finals
English and German Fans mix in Cologne, before a World Cup 2006 fixture

Cross-posted over at Liberal Conspiracy.

34 thoughts on “The World Cup is Not Xenophobic”

  1. Well, there was that research, wasn’t there, that showed when you get people into teams for competitive sport, it increases inter-group conflict, hatred and violence away from the game.

    I think your analysis is very nice, Rob, but it is very….how shall I say…Hampshire-centric.

    Yes, a party is lovely, but remember, not everyone is invited. And yes, the rules are childishly simple – though I seem to feel that the off-side rule is not one that a lot of people get? Some people are too busy fighting for their lives or their next meal, or too traumatised by war, or torture, to be feeling very much like a party. Isn’t all this jollity a bit of a kick in the teeth to the Empty Chair? Oh, but let us not think of them, it spoils the party, doesn’t it?

    Nice, middle-class people may well be more interested in making friends than in nationalistic hostilities, but perhaps you forget that nice, middle-class people are a minority, in this country at least. On top of which, not everyone is educated enough, or had lovely enough childhoods to be well-adjusted enough to ‘get’ the knowingness of which you speak.

    I note also that the misogyny to which Penny Red referred has not merited a mention here.

    Personally, my main objection to the World Cup is the hegemony it represents, whereby dissent or exclusion is kept largely invisible, and where someone does dare to speak up, they are dismissed as not ‘getting it’…

  2. There may be some stubstance in what you say Clarice, but your comment is clouded by some ridiculous and unfair ad hominem

    The “Hampshire-centric” charge seems particularly out of place. In what way does my home town delegitimise my point of view? I do not make any class-based points (as others often do), instead focusing on why I think the game is universal. I have been watching, playing, enjoying and even refereeing football since the 1986 (at least) and in this post I have tried to capture the essence of what I and other players see as the appeal of the game. Your sneering attitude seems to imply that any kind of Corinthian spirit or ‘play the game for the fun of it’ approach is limited to the middle-classes, and that the working-classes and the poor masses of the developing world are instead in it for the fight and the excuse to indulge their prejudices. Not so.

    Nor do I think that a single post celebrating something that is (I think) a force for good in the world means that one is ignoring the problems and poverty faced by people around the world. Indeed, quite the opposite. Anything which promotes the idea of a shared humanity, as the World Cup most certainly does, will also promote tolerance, a respect for human rights, and the idea of human equality. Applauding international sport is entirely consistent with the internationalist idea behind the Empty Chair and the wider issue of human rights, and its very cheap of you to suggest otherwise.

    Onto your more substantial points. First: Misogyny. Well, it seems I’m nowhere on record as having applauded women’s football and the idea it should be given equal parity with men. The women’s game has increased in popularity over the years and long may that continue. I would like to see the two World Cups align, so they take place side-by-side as the Olympics and tennis tournaments already do. It would be a fantastic boost to the women’s game, give us more matches to watch and goals to see, and promote equality some more.

    The charge of “not getting it” is not a “dismissal”, as you say, at least not on this blog. Quite the opposite in fact: I have tried hard in the post to explain where the appeal of the game lies, and why international football as embodied by the world cup should not be lumped in with the criticisms (rightly) made of the Premiership.

    Next, I would be interested to see the research which states that

    howed when you get people into teams for competitive sport, it increases inter-group conflict, hatred and violence away from the game

    That would call into question the multitude of projects, both in the UK and abroad, where sport is used to get people off the streets, away from crime, and into a more positive frame of mind. So the research you mention at first glance seems highly improbable, but do link to it and we can discuss further.

    Finally, the increase in domestic violence statistics is indeed incredibly worrying and its a timely campaign from Manchester police. However, the article makes the explicit point that the violence results from an excess of alcohol. The article does not suggest that it is in the nature of sport to provoke violence. It is ludicrous to suggest that, if only there were no World Cup, we wouldn’t have domestic violence. The wife-beaters would find another excuse to drink and abuse. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc?

  3. @Jonathan Edgar – Sure thing, you were something of the midfield dynamo as I recall, whereas I flitted about the Crookham Rovers team, from right-back to centre-forward. During the Les Salmon era I even recall taking on the centre-mid role – don't know if that had anything to do with our regular 7-nil drubbings.Ah, those heady days, of Chris Walsh reliable up-front ("Kevin Sheedy: chink!"), Tim James the solid centre-back with an almight toe-punt clearance, and of course, Wyeth reliable as ever in goal.

  4. @Jonathan Edgar – Sure thing, you were something of the midfield dynamo as I recall, whereas I flitted about the Crookham Rovers team, from right-back to centre-forward.​ During the Les Salmon era I even recall taking on the centre-mid role – don't know if that had anything to do with our regular 7-nil drubbings.Ah, those heady days, of Chris Walsh reliable up-front ("Kevin Sheedy: chink!"), Tim James the solid centre-back with an almight toe-punt clearance, and of course, Wyeth reliable as ever in goal.

  5. Sometimes, it's sport that gives people a break form their problems. It's such a great way to unite people – even if only for a short while. We have North Koreans and South Koreans here – all for the sake of SPORT! Doesn't that say something??????​?

  6. And even if we bluntly accept that a world cup does stir national sentiments, what is necessarily wrong with that? Nationalism, love and pride for your history and culture are not intrinsically bad things. If they are a source of pride which make you want to share them with others, they are a great source of humanity. Being half German you can't imagine how wonderful it was to see Germans be proud of their country and sport the colours of the flag for the 2006 cup. For once, belonging to Germany was not shameful. THe Brazilians have it right, they wear their colours any time any place, for no particular reason, but the fact that they love their land, their fellow people, that they have an deep emotional tie to it, which they are always keen to share with others, thus not being fearful to show it. Nice article Robert! Thank you!

  7. @Jonathan Edgar – Sure thing, you were something of the midfield dynamo as I recall, whereas I flitted about the Crookham Rovers team, from right-back to centre-forward. During the Les Salmon era I even recall taking on the centre-mid role – don't know if that had anything to do with our regular 7-nil drubbings.Ah, those heady days, of Chris Walsh reliable up-front ("Kevin Sheedy: chink!"), Tim James the solid centre-back with an almight toe-punt clearance, and of course, Wyeth reliable as ever in goal.

  8. Well I have just come back from driving through Cosmo City – a recent government low-cost housing development in South Africa (all the people who live in Cosmo City once lived in a tin shack). In Cosmo City there are certainly people who are “too busy fighting for their lives or their next meal, or too traumatised by war, or torture, to be feeling … See morevery much like a party.” However these very people are also the ones who are blowing their vuvuzelas with full force, vigorously waving their flags and wearing the soccer team colours. So actually everyone is in fact invited, and the majority have turned up for the party… and it has nothing to do with middle class.

  9. Well I have just come back from driving through Cosmo City – a recent government low-cost housing development in South Africa (all the people who live in Cosmo City once lived in a tin shack). In Cosmo City there are certainly people who are "too busy fighting for their lives or their next meal, or too traumatised by war, or torture, to be feeling very much like a party." However these very people are also the ones who are blowing their vuvuzelas with full force, vigorously waving their flags and wearing the soccer team colours. So actually everyone is in fact invited, and the majority have turned up for the party… and it has nothing to do with middle class.

  10. Sometimes, it's sport that gives people a break form their problems. It's such a great way to unite people – even if only for a short while. We have North Koreans and South Koreans here – all for the sake of SPORT! Doesn't that say something???????

  11. It’s time I enlightened some people. I’ll do it in point form because it’s easier.
    1. It’s utter nonsense that sport increases inter-group conflict, hatred, violence, etc. Is that what the World Cup is doing right now? I don’t think so! Should we stop the Olympics also? Should we ban sport throughout the world – forever!??????

    2. You say there are some people fighting for their lives etc etc – it is sport that gives them the very respite they need from their sad lives!!!

    3. Or should we take that away and all be miserable together? If you think so, then you are selfish – you take away the very diversion they need from all their sufferings. Ask them, come on, come here and ask them. Would they like to play soccer or hear it on the radio, or even be able to see it on TV, or would they rather sit at home, acknowledging their problems!!!!!?????

    4. Soccer in South Africa is actually NOT just middle class. I assume you are referring to SA – well, let me tell you that no matter how poor or how much they are usffering, a game of soccer is played from the township kids to the rural kids to city kids. They delight in their soccer. They may only have different colour t shirts to identify the teams, they may also play on pure dust on the ground, they may use trees as goal posts, but they THRIVE on it! And they are NOT middle class! And as Rob said, it keeps MANY kids off the street. Soccer makes them fit and as a bonus, healthier. I live in South Africa – I KNOW! You sit there miles away assuming things that are not remotely true.

    5. Misogny – referring to soccer/sport – went out with the “ban the bra” brigade!

    6. Hegemony is precisely what competition IS!!!

    7. Why does the sport thrive and grow? Because so many millions of people like it! Otherwise it would die out. That’s the appeal of the sport.

    8. Maybe in Manchester there is violence but it is not due to sport. In South Africa there is no violence due to any sport whatsoever! Isn’t it funny that the people who were banned from the World Cup, the people who were deported immediately after arrival here – Why because they were on “the list” and they were from the UK! Maybe you need to clean up your own backyard before throwing stones!

    9. Some people MARRY prostitutes and the prostitutes become welcomed memebers of families. The prostitutes become the “aunties”!!!! So don’t start ME on THAT, either!!!!!!!!!!!

    10. The comeraderie in South Africa is unbelievable. People from all walks of life are uniting. People are happy, people are proud, where do you get off saying it causes violence etc????????????????????

    11. Anyway, you are in the minority. It’s the majority that LOVE sport and all it entails all around the world. It’s always the MINORITY who are the empty vessels. And they usually have no facts to back them up.

  12. The rugby world cup 1995 went some way to unite our country, the Super 14 at Soweto went even further and the World Cup has us all pulling in the same way. Give me sport to conflict any day.

  13. Raising a concern, or expressing a view about possible bias in your position does not constitute an ad hominem, Rob, and I suspect that you know this.

    I never said that being “hampshire-centric” delegitimises your view. I was simply pointing out that there are other views, equally legitimate, and mentioning what some of them might be, by way of supporting comment.

    Similarly, there was no sneer in my comment, and I think it is a shame that you should choose to read such a thing into it where certainly, none was intended.

    By the same token, it was not I who brought class into the discussion, I was simply referring to geography – in any case, I was under the impression that Hampshire contains people of all eschelons of British society. Btw, you might want to read Penny Red on privilege – some people take their privilege so much for granted that they can’t even see it.

    I have no problem with a single post celebrating something that you enjoy, but I do have a problem with a post that attacks others for not sharing your view, and one which appears to seek to either deligitmise or gloss over other perfectly valid views on the matter, just because they challenge the ‘party’ framework you prefer to think of.

    On the point of misogyny, I was referring to the misogyny associated with the world cup, not with you. And I was simply noting the silence of your world cup post on this matter. Regardless of the state of ‘the women’s game’, the World Cup of which you speak is not it.

    On the point of competitive team sports fostering conflict and violence, you’re right – it seems improbable to you, so of course, silly old Clarice must have been making up rubbish. Heaven forbid a psychologist should actually be talking any sense! Try the unbelievably ‘improbable’ Robber’s Cave experiment – a summary here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realistic_conflict_theory

    Re. the domestic violence point, you selectively refer to the presence of alcohol, and seem to miss out the part where it says that it is the combination of alcohol with the ‘tension’ experienced by sports fans around major sporting events that leads to the violence. It doesn’t really matter – all that matters is when sports events come around, you’re more likely to suffer violence from your partner, and emergency services see a ten-fold increase in DV incidents. The correlation, I understand, is pretty sizeable and robust. Clearly there is a problem, however you try to explain it away.

    The logic of your argument “if there was no world cup” also doesn’t hold water. To observe the fact that major sporting events correlate with a massive increase in domestic violence does not presume that the rate of dv is zero at other times. I mean, seriously, what planet are you on? To note that the conditions leading to domestic violence are amplified around sporting events does not rule out the possibility of those conditions arising at lower levels at other times, and has to be, to any reasonable person, an important factor in weighing up the pros and and cons of big sporting events.

    On the subject of prostitution, my concern was simply regarding the ethics of large numbers of men who enjoy football, and the conditions likely to be experienced by said prostitutes. Football is also correlated with men who view women and sex as a commodity, and although it’s not pretty to say, I have a problem with that, and with any man who doesn’t.

    Like I said, sorry to spoil the party.

  14. Well well well – have to wade in here – The World Cup Tournament, as The Olympics, sharing sport around the world, must be a good thing and I think all commentators here will agree to that – I do take some of Clarice’s points – there is definitely a rise in DV during such times or at least reported DV but these occurrences are terrible at whatever level – one is too many but the culture of DV has to be tackled regardless as to whether there are huge sporting events to increase the incidence. I do not believe, and it is only my personal belief, that one should ban all such events and deny all the positives which Rob, Joan and Stacey have indicated.

    What about the inmates of Robben Island and their Soccer League – yes, being in a team was denied those in solitary but it gave them some HOPE and this is something universally to be applauded – they could watch the games from their cell windows and it did give them hope – it was this which helped Nelson Mandela eventually get free to become the undoubted great man he is and how he gave HOPE to the oppressed masses. Yes, we are partisan but I know that I can take joy in others winning too but must admit to being secretly pleased that the League table I saw from Robben Island had The Gunners in second place and Hotspurs below them!!

    Also Clarice I do not believe that you really think that Rob dismisses anyone’s view on anything and the fuss about the off side rule is actually
    just that a fuss – if explained properly anyone can “get” it and lets face it some men don’t and some refs don’t and some TV commentators don’t, so whatever anyone’s prowess is in that area is unimportant.

    I loved seeing all the Crosses of St.George out in Dorset and some SA flags draped from pubs too – a flat near us always hangs out a big George Cross and a Portugese Flag – obviously living in harmony – one hopes.

    On balance I do believe there are more positives than negatives

  15. Forget xenophobia this world cup so far has been really bad-when is it going to 'come alive' as the pundits keep predicting-mayb​e thats why Earle sold his briefs early doors……..

  16. Forget xenophobia this world cup so far has been really bad-when is it going to 'come alive' as the pundits keep predicting-maybe thats why Earle sold his briefs early doors……..

  17. Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion. Thank God for freedom of speech and thought. So I will not belabour any points except the last one. You said: large numbers of men who enjoy football … and that football is also correlated with men who view …. That’s not relaly true. There are men who dont even like sport who seek out prostitutes, AND there are lots of men who like sport who DON’T seek out prostitutes. There are men who find prostitutes “for the excitement” and if they marry them, obviously the families have no problems with them because they welcome them in with open arms! So if you don’t approve of prostitutes, or you don’t approve of the men who go with prostitutes, then can you explain why they are so readily accepted as part of the family? I rest my case!

  18. Well, JB, the same argument I applied re. domestic violence applies here also: The fact that not ALL, or not ONLY football fans use prostitutes does not speak to the observation that wherever in the world the world cup is held, it constitutes a market large enough for high numbers of prostitutes to be trafficked in to capitalise on it. In an environment of high tension, high alcohol use, and misogyny.

    Although I disapprove of prostitution, I do not disapprove of prostitutes. What I do disapprove of are the conditions that would induce a person to ‘work’ in such a domain.

    Re ‘family’ – I don’t think anyone can really know or judge what goes on in other family units, and I think it is naive to suppose that disapproving of something a family member does (short of, say, a serious and violent criminal offence) would be sufficient to break a family tie, however strongly one disapproved. I also think that marrying a prostitute is not the typical experience of most men who use them, and it is the typical case I am most objecting to.

  19. I have to disagree with some of the comments…

    Firstly, I am not sure where there is any proof that ‘not everyone is invited’? In my onion that statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Before the opening game, Bafana Bafana paraded through the streets of jo’burg, where everyone was invited to celebrate their national side with pride and hope.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/south-africa-take-opentop-bus-tour-before-first-game-1996192.html

    This concept of the open bus parade is not a new idea, and not something confined to the World Cup. The reason for these parades is specifically for the fact that everyone is indeed invited to rejoice in their team’s success. Correct, some people cannot afford the ticket to the game, or to travel to the city where the match is being played; which is why teams organize these street parades which cost the public nothing, and are always extremely well attended by the home supporters.

    In South Africa, for the world cup matches, there are fan zones and for a nominal fee (the price of a KFC meal deal) anyone can join the party – for this fee, you get a burger and supporters gear to enjoy the game. These fan zones are located throughout the country and have to date been attended to maximum.

    To say not everyone is invited couldn’t be further from the truth – and I am not sure if there is any subsistence to that argument?

    ‘Some people are too busy fighting for their lives or their next meal, or too traumatised by war, or torture, to be feeling very much like a party’

    Again, I struggle to see any validity in this argument. Now I would not be so presumptuous as to make a sweeping statement of a group of people I am clearly not part of, but what I can do is speak to what I have seen. In the poorest areas of South Africa where people literally are fighting for their lives, Sport still exists, is still played. Ask any of these people who they support in the South African soccer league and you would receive a definite response (I hazard a guess, probably Keizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates).

    And those currently in the middle of a war… I am sure we all saw coverage of David Cameron’s visit to Afghanistan where he brought a message from Capello to the troops:

    “While the players receive incredible support from the country as we are about to kick off in the World Cup, it is important you know how much all your efforts mean to all the players and staff with the England team,” Mr Capello’s message read.

    “Your brave service to your country means so much to the players and we will all have complete respect for the incredible sacrifices that you and your families have made.

    “While we will be doing all we can to achieve success in South Africa for the whole country, we want you know that we believe that you are the real heroes.”

    Even those in the midst of war are invited to the party, and are indeed supporting their home nations.

    ‘Oh, but let us not think of them, it spoils the party, doesn’t it?’

    Again, I find this lacking any subsistence or evidence. How do we know people enjoying the world cup party are not thinking of those less fortunate? I am enjoying the world cup ‘party’, but I have not forgotten those who are suffering, and take exception to anyone insinuating I have! I do not think it is right to assume just because people are enjoying a world cup, they do not have thought for those suffering.

    Perhaps, Clarice, you missed England vs The Rest of the World?

    http://www.unicef.org.uk/socceraid2010/

    Raising over 2million for those you deemed to not have been thought of? I think those who donated to this cause would take offence to that statement.

    On the subject of prostitution – personally I think the fact this was brought up in the debate to be in particularly poor taste given the sensitive nature of the subject. While I do have my own person views on the matter, I have made the conscious decision note to enter into this debate in this forum for reasons already stated.

    There will always be a few ‘party-poopers’ who despite the majority’s enjoyment of a particular event, will be against it (maybe just for the sake of being against that which most other people are happily enjoying?). Lets just hope these people, who to me, seem to be intent on focusing on and seeking out only the negative, stay in the minority and their negativity does not dampen the spirits of the rest.

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