As I stroll through the air-conditioned stadiums of the ninth World Cup, my mind returns to the first. One night at university in 1990 a friend told me he could get unlimited tickets to the World Cup in Italy. He knew someone whose father works at Mars, who is a sponsor. Mars had tickets, but its Asian and American clients didn’t want to go to a soccer game with hooligans. Days later, we were riding the ferry into Dover. next one world Cup In the US in 1994, I was a frequenter of an American TV station, tasked with identifying players who scored, got injured, or did something wrong, so the producers could put their names on screen. Mostly I misidentified.
But I haven’t missed a tournament since then, and I travel on the Doha Metro now—”Sir, you can take the train,” members of the Philippine “event team” helpfully explain when its doors open—I find myself comparing all my tournaments. My initial conclusion: Qatar epitomizes the declining trend in World Cups, which is the lack of “there” there. The tournament has become a TV set or Instagram background. Football fans need not be envious of us being here. The real World Cup is happening back home.
French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the term “non-places”: broadly speaking, “ultra-modern” places, like airports or hotel rooms, where humans barely leave a mark. It’s a modern World Cup, especially this World Cup. The stadiums are new, without any legacy history. Built far from the quarters, with large, guarded surroundings, it has nothing to do with place.
It’s Doha, but it could be Brasilia. The benches are filled with sponsor guests, journalists whining about WiFi, Fifa officials just trying to get over the embarrassment of this World Cup, and wealthy, non-partisan soccer tourists watching two games a day.
Everyone catches that rare beast: the true, committed fan. What was the source of fear in 1990 is now the main selling point of the World Cup. Few of them fly every day: usually, the upper middle class in rich countries, the skilled English working class and the upper class in poor countries. Ecuadorian fans, for example, are whiter than the Ecuadorean team. The moment anyone starts acting like a fan in a Coca-Cola ad—banging a drum, say—everyone gathers around to photograph them, sending the “emotion” viral. Mostly, onlookers film themselves: In 2018, I watched an endless stream of Peruvians descend an escalator in the Moscow metro, each with a smartphone to their face.
The host country’s job is to supply the bulk of the fans. Qatar did not. The only glimpse of the local football passion was a quiet evening on the promenade next to a yacht harbour. A veiled Qatari mother was leading three young boys, one wearing a full Argentinian kit with soccer shoes, the other wearing a Neymar Brazilian uniform, and a toddler in civilian clothes, who was guarded by an immigrant nanny. Other Qataris may already regret hosting this thing. These locals — who, after 12 years preparing for their national ceremony, came off their team’s opening humiliation against Ecuador at halftime — likely won’t return.
I live in a middle-class neighborhood in South Asia, where a meal of dosa costs about €2.50, and where all the soaps in the Loyal City supermarket promise to “whiten”. I didn’t notice local Indians talking football or watching on screens in restaurants, you certainly don’t see them in stadiums. Every night after the last match, I come back from the World Cup to another country, I take samosas before bed.
I enjoyed these tournaments. There are moments – for example in 2010, when Siphiwe Tshabalala’s beautiful goal in the opening World Cup for South Africa scored itself in his country’s history – when a player, a team or even a country reaches the pinnacle of existence. I think Tshabalala will remember that bullet on his deathbed. I love Wales fans here, I sing about the world in Welsh. But my best memories of the World Cup are of visits to places I’ll never see again: On my walk one morning in the Amazon in 2014, a man was washing in the mighty river while chickens roamed. In 2018, I toured the battlefields of Stalingrad.
To experience the height of the World Cup, stay home. In 2018, I watched France’s thrilling victory over Argentina in a hotel bar in Moscow. Back home in Paris my children, their classmates and their classmates’ parents, faces painted in the French tricolor, were rolling in ecstasy on our carpet. He finished the night stained red, white and blue. This is where the World Cup takes place: in the living rooms and cafés of the world, among friends, Perfect with beer.
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