World Cup quarterfinals revive old border wars


German Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrates with the German soccer team after a World Cup preliminary round match between Germany and Portugal in Salvador, Brazil, on June 16. (Guido Bergmann/German Federal Press Office)

And then there were eight. The World Cup quarterfinals kick off Friday with two regional grudge matches: Brazil takes on an effervescent Colombia in the city of Fortaleza, while France faces Germany in Rio de Janeiro. Every World Cup, we big up the hopes of aspirants from Africa and Asia, only, more often than not, to see them dashed by this round. Of the teams left in the tournament, half are from Europe (though with many stars of African origin) and the other half are from the Americas.

For the Brazilians and Colombians, the narrative of the World Cup has been about stress and redemption. The team from Brazil, the tournament's host for the first time since 1950, carries a great burden of hope and expectation. As I wrote here, the team has demons to exorcize from its shocking defeat in 1950. The manic focus on the World Cup has obscured even the mass protest movement that had built up a year ago, fueled by anger at the wasteful spending surrounding the soccer gala. But an ignominious defeat or loss to a regional rival — say, Argentina — could darken the national mood.

Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of the killing of the Colombian captain Andrés Escobar, guilty of scoring an own goal while playing the United States ahead of Colombia's unexpected first-round exit from the tournament. Escobar's death exposed the rot in Colombian society, which at the time was still beholden to the whims and vindictiveness of powerful drug cartels. My colleague Scott Wilson recounts what happened after Escobar's killing here. Colombia's exciting side, the best in a generation, reflects, in a sense, the slow progress made in the two decades since.

The match-up between France and Germany, though, drips with much more obvious geopolitical juice. While the Franks are technically Germans, the two nations have a long history of enmity. When it appeared clear that the two countries would be facing each other in the quarterfinals, Twitter exploded with World War I and World War II puns. Battles for Alsace and Lorraine, it seemed, shadow Rio's Maracana stadium.

For a time, there was no love lost between the two national teams. The most notorious encounter came in the 1982 World Cup, when West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher brutally jump-kicked French defender Patrick Battiston, who left the field on a stretcher with broken ribs, damaged vertebrae and eventually went into a coma. Legendary French playmaker Michel Platini said he thought Battiston was dead (he would recover). The collision went unpunished, but lived on in infamy.

Nowadays, though, France and Germany are united by a lot more than what divides them. The two countries are the main engines driving the European Union; their political leaderships largely see eye to eye on the future of a more integrated continent, a dream that first emerged out of the ashes of brutal Franco-German conflicts.

Their soccer teams, in a sense, also reflect a kind of shared project. As described here, the French team that won the 1998 World Cup was the product of a new multicultural generation: French soccer had made a concerted effort to pool and cultivate talent from across its diverse society. After failure in the 2000 European championships, Germany embarked on a similar path. More than a decade later, its team doesn't reflect the ruthless cynicism of the era of Schumacher, but rather a new relentless, attacking verve, led by its classy midfield maestro Mesut Ozil, a devout Muslim born to Turkish parents.

When the two teams meet in Rio, it won't be as old enemies but as European brethren.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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Ishaan Tharoor · July 2