Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

By Simon Kuper, a columnist for the Financial Times, from lectures delivered in April at Occidental and Pitzer Colleges. Kuper’s books on soccer include Soccernomics, which he co-wrote with Stefan Szymanski.

When Lionel Messi was thirteen years old, he and his family left their hometown of Rosario, Argentina, and moved to Barcelona, a city about which they knew so little that they were surprised to discover it was on the sea. FC Barcelona, the wealthy local soccer club, had agreed to pay for the hormone treatments that the tiny soccer prodigy needed to reach a normal height. Messi — now twenty-seven years old, five feet six inches tall, and possibly the world’s best player — has been with Barça ever since. But in this year’s World Cup in Brazil, he represents Argentina, as he always does in international competition.

Messi has rarely excelled for his national team, and many of his compatriots accuse him of being insufficiently Argentine — of not “sweating the shirt.” In 2012 he scored a world-record ninety-one goals (seventy-nine of them for Barcelona), yet he finished third in the Argentine vote for sportsman of the year. Meanwhile, admirers from Myanmar to Manhattan, who watch him every week on television, cheer him on with no reservation. He now belongs less to Argentina than to the world, a fate that mirrors the evolution of soccer itself, which in turn exemplifies the ongoing globalization of daily life. It’s a transformation I can attest to personally, having attended every World Cup since 1990 and watched the planet’s biggest nationalist spectacle evolve into a cosmopolitan party.

The World Cup was created after the success of the Olympic soccer tournaments of the 1920s, and the first edition was held in Uruguay in 1930. Benito Mussolini was probably the pioneer in seeking national prestige through soccer — he was very pleased when Italy won the World Cups of 1934 and 1938. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Albert Forster, a Nazi gauleiter serving in Poland, persuaded Hitler to watch Germany thrash little Norway at soccer. Joseph Goebbels, who attended the match with Hitler, wrote in his diary: “The Führer is very excited. I can barely contain myself. A real bath of nerves. The crowd rages. A battle like never before. The game as mass suggestion.” But to Forster’s mortification, Germany lost 2–0. It seems to have been the only soccer match Hitler ever saw.

After 1945, nationalism in Europe ceased to prompt wars; instead it became World Cup nationalism. Perhaps the earliest outbreak occurred in 1954, after West Germany beat the great Hungarians in the mud of Bern, Switzerland. The story of that day, the Wunder von Bern, became a founding myth of emergent West Germany: Germans gathered around the only TV set in their neighborhood to watch the game, mobbed the train carrying the winning players home at every station, and celebrated on the streets in West and East Germany. After the final, people in Bern and across Germany had sung the national anthem with its old verse — taboo in the post-Nazi years — “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” Two weeks later, at official celebrations in West Berlin, the West German president Theodor Heuss frantically coached the crowd in the new opening line, “Unity and right and freedom.” The German phrase most associated with the Bern victory is “Wir sind wieder wer”: “We are somebody again.” Soccer had begun to create a proud new German nation.

Over the second half of the twentieth century, interest in soccer spread through all social classes. World Cups became the most-watched televised events on earth. For many Europeans and Latin Americans in particular, national soccer teams came to define the nation. Those eleven young men in plastic shirts were the nation made flesh — more alive than the flag, less individual than the queen, more tangible than gross domestic product. While the Super Bowl draws about one in three Americans, World Cup matches are often viewed by more than half of a participating country’s national audience. In 2010, 12.3 million Dutch people — three quarters of the population — watched at least some of the Holland-Uruguay semifinal. That match was the biggest Dutch communal experience since the war, just as France’s home victory in the World Cup of 1998 was the biggest French communal experience since the liberation of Paris in 1944 — though in 1998 all French people were on the same side.

Nationalism needs an enemy, and into the 1990s the enemy for most European countries was Germany. England’s unofficial soccer anthem, “Three Lions,” is mostly about big games against Germany. France’s greatest soccer trauma was its defeat by West Germany in Seville at the 1982 World Cup. The Dutch, the Danes — indeed perhaps half the countries of Europe — date the emotional peaks of their soccer history to matches against Germans.

It had to do with the war, of course. The French TV commentator Georges de Caunes said that for French men of his generation, the karate kick inflicted in Seville by the German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher on France’s Patrick Battiston evoked feelings from wartime. After Holland beat West Germany in the 1988 European Football Championship, millions of Dutch people celebrated in the streets, in the largest public gathering since the end of the Nazi occupation. But the anti-German feelings also had to do with the present. The almost unbeatable West German teams, from 1954 through 1990, incarnated rich postwar West Germany.

Those German teams gave meaning to World Cups of the nationalist era. As the journalist David Winner has said, “In terms of story the greatest nation in the history of football is Germany. A World Cup without Germany would be like Star Wars without Darth Vader.” For Europeans, Germany was the perfect villain, the bad guy who killed the beautiful teams — Hungary in 1954, Holland in 1974, and France in 1982.

Latin America — the only region outside of Europe well represented in the World Cups of this era — brought another set of nationalist frustrations to the game. For Argentines in particular, this meant anger at England. Though never a British colony, Argentina was economically part of Britain’s “informal empire” until about the First World War. The Brits built railways and shipped Argentine beef abroad. When Argentina first beat England at soccer, in 1953, an Argentine politician said: “We have nationalized the railways, and now we have nationalized soccer!”

After England defeated Argentina 1–0 in a bad-tempered 1966 World Cup quarterfinal, England’s manager, Alf Ramsey, described the Argentine players as “animals.” Many Argentines read this as classic British racism. England became their Germany. Argentine frustrations poured out in the World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico City in 1986, in which they beat England 2–1 thanks to two goals from Diego Maradona: the first a cheeky handball that the referee didn’t spot, the second a dribble through half the English side. The latter was possibly the best goal ever scored in a World Cup, but Maradona wrote in his autobiography that in some ways he preferred the “Hand of God.” Why? “It was a bit like stealing the wallet of the English.”

Maradona’s account of the match harks back to Argentina’s defeat in the Falkland Islands — or the Islas Malvinas — in 1982. “It was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team,” he wrote. “Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”

By the 1990 cup, the Berlin Wall had fallen; European economic unification was under way; China had opened to the West. The Internet, cable TV, international financial markets, and the rise of English as a global language all did their part to erase borders, as did cheap air travel and high-speed trains. Though it may be difficult to recognize from an American perspective, there was a drastic decline in transnational wars. Nationalism was becoming outmoded.

Soccer, too, globalized fast. If you lived in New York City in 1990, it was hard even to find out Arsenal’s result. Gradually bars began showing the Arsenal game. Nowadays New Yorkers can — and often do — live-tweet the matches from their sofas.

The collapse of international trade barriers reached soccer in 1996, when the so-called Bosman ruling allowed Europeans and many non-Europeans to change clubs across European borders with very few obstacles. Arsenal, hitherto an English club, became an international one. When France won the World Cup in 1998, Britain’s Daily Mirror ran the front-page headline arsenal wins the world cup, above a photo of two French Arsenal players embracing on the pitch.

Before about the 1990s, each country had its own style, often described in stereotypes widely understood as expressions of national character: the Germans were supposedly machinelike, the English played like warriors, the Brazilians dribbled “to the rhythm of samba,” and so on. As players moved between countries and played more international club soccer, they became increasingly similar. Michael Owen, the longtime England striker, told me he’d grown up a European player, not an English one. You saw it in his dives. Before Owen, the English considered diving to trick a referee into giving a free kick a marker of unmanly foreignness. To some extent they still do; but it’s harder to hold that view now that English players also dive and kiss teammates on the cheeks and sometimes even pass like Spaniards. The Spaniards learned their tiki-taka passing game from the Dutch, and later the Germans borrowed it from the Spaniards. National styles are dying out. At the top now, there’s only an international style.

The World Cup at which I first grasped the fading of old-style nationalism was in 2006, in Germany. That summer you could see a shift to a kind of carnival nationalism: people from around the world dressed up, each in their own national colors, and then watched games together on public squares with giant screens. (For some games, close to a million people gathered at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.) Oliver Bierhoff, the German team’s general manager, remarked with surprise that fans had become less interested in results. Above all, they were out to have fun. It was no longer a matter of national virility, or life and death.

That 2006 World Cup was a pan-European lovefest for the German hosts, a festival to mark the true end of World War II, which was why it had to end in Berlin. A few days before the final, I attended a conference on soccer and history at the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, the suburban villa where high officials of the Third Reich met in 1942 to discuss the implementation of the Final Solution. The day I arrived it was boiling hot, and from the villa’s garden you could see people sunbathing all around the Greater Wannsee lake. I went for a stroll in the woods with an official from the DFB, the German soccer association, whose job it was to deal with questions about history. Any journalist with a question about the DFB and the war was put through to him. I asked whether he’d had many war-related calls during the World Cup. “No, not one,” he said.

You still get the odd reference to Nazis and wars at some matches — English fans imitating bomber planes at England-Germany games, for instance — but now it’s generally done as a joke. The war is being used to spice up what have become almost entirely just soccer rivalries. This isn’t old-style nationalism anymore. It’s carnival nationalism, the World Cup minus the hate.

Leading soccer players have joined the 0.1 Percent, the transnational elite more at home in first-class airport lounges than in the streets of their own countries. Cristiano Ronaldo, Thiago Silva, and Mesut Özil now resemble one another more than they do their compatriots. In a vicious Holland-Portugal game in Nuremberg in 2006 in which four players were sent off, two of them, Holland’s Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Portugal’s Deco, sat down together by the touchline and chatted while the match finished. After all, they were colleagues at Barcelona — fellow cosmopolitans. In Portugal’s next match, the quarterfinal against England, Cristiano Ronaldo lobbied the referee to get his Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney sent off, but after the game Rooney reportedly sent him a peacemaking text message. It’s harder to feel blind nationalism about the World Cup when the protagonists themselves don’t.

Many fans are even starting to choose which national team to support. At Brazil’s first match at the 2006 World Cup, against Croatia in Berlin, tens of thousands of people showed up in Brazil’s famous canary-yellow shirts. But walking around the stadium before the game, I realized that few of them were Brazilians. They were Germans, Japanese, Brits, people from everywhere who wanted a share in Brazil’s myth. That phenomenon was being replicated in living rooms around the world. “Since the 1970s, when film and television coverage of the team first reached Africa and Asia,” writes soccer’s premier historian, David Goldblatt, “the Brazilians have been supported across the global south, often alongside or even in preference to national teams.” Israelis and Palestinians, for instance, share a love of Brazil. This transnationalism is driven partly by club soccer: if you’re an Englishman who supports Chelsea, you now probably feel more warmly about Chelsea players like the Belgian Eden Hazard or the Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o than you do about the English Rooney, who usually makes his living besieging Chelsea in the pay of Manchester United.

National teams have kept getting more cosmopolitan. That’s partly because most of the countries that produce good soccer players are in Western Europe. Jürgen Klinsmann, the German head coach of the U.S. national team, has recruited several players raised in Germany, the sons of German mothers and American military fathers. Bosnia has its own German contingent, and its striker, Vedad Ibišević, was once a high school soccer star in St. Louis. Many African teams recruit heavily from their European diasporas. Most of Algeria’s squad currently in Brazil for the World Cup consists of players born in France. Didier Drogba, the great Ivorian center-forward, emigrated from Abidjan to France at the age of five, sent by his parents to live with an uncle who was a journeyman soccer player there.

Soccer is finally living up to its long-standing reputation as the “global game.” The world’s four most populous countries — China, India, the United States, and Indonesia — account between them for about 45 percent of humanity, and they have just begun switching on to soccer in large numbers. These new fans often have weak local loyalties. Their hearts are in faraway places like Manchester or Barcelona.

At the last World Cup, in 2010, USA’s defeat by Ghana drew 19.4 million American TV viewers — during daytime on a Saturday. That beat the average TV audience for a game in baseball’s World Series or the NBA finals that year. The Seattle Sounders now draw larger home crowds than European giants like Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, and Juventus. By far the biggest group of visiting fans at the Brazilian World Cup are Americans.

Today two groups of Americans follow soccer most keenly. The first are immigrants, chiefly the country’s approximately 53 million Hispanics. The second are the educated elite. There’s a growing American tribe of “soccer nerds,” who insist on calling the game “football” and can knock you out with long analyses of Manchester City’s defensive issues. (We European pundits disagree on the correct strategy for surviving these encounters, but my own policy is to flee.) Soccer — especially European soccer — makes American fans feel like cosmopolitans. That may be why American soccer fans tend to be Democrats, even though sports fans overall lean Republican.

The millions of Americans who rise before dawn to watch games beamed from English towns they will likely never visit are part of the worldwide retreat from nationalism. While it’s true that this year’s World Cup begins in the shadow of classically nationalist behavior by Russia, this seems more a last gasp than a renewal of nationalist sentiment. By some measures the Russian invasion of Ukraine was the first war anywhere in the world between states since Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. This might not sound so impressive, but for centuries Europe alone has averaged several such conflicts a year. Amid the recent surge in revolutions and coups within states, the old great powers have resisted the urge to wrap themselves in the flag and intervene. And what’s noticeable in Crimea is that nobody wants to fight, except perhaps Putin himself. Most Russians say in polls that they don’t want a war with Ukraine; the Ukrainian army pulled out of Crimea rather than fighting for it (even if it is attempting to crack down on separatists in the east); in the United States, not even hawks like John McCain are proposing military intervention. Last year 52 percent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center agreed with the statement that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally” — the highest proportion since pollsters first asked that question fifty years ago.

Nationalism, the Iraqi-born British historian Elie Kedourie wrote, “is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century.” Within soccer and without, that doctrine may be nearing the end of its run.

| View All Issues |

July 2014

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now