Today, just in time for brunch on the U.S. East Coast, France and Croatia will kick off their match in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium to decide the 2018 World Cup champion. Soccer fans who check the headlines before they sit down to watch the game may wonder whether, given the problems in the world, devoting time and energy to a soccer match is anything but socially and politically irresponsible.
They are not the first to wonder about the propriety of embracing international sports in troubled times. In November 1945, an international soccer competition caught the attention of a skeptical George Orwell. He grumpily asserted, “There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.”
But what Orwell — and doubters today — miss is that the World Cup hardly represents an escape from the real world. Observers of this year’s tournament have repeatedly used it as an opportunity to raise questions about issues ranging from political repression and torture to homophobic and racist cheering by some spectators. And these questions show how international sport can help us to confront a fact that Orwell had already recognized: “Big-scale sport” is a byproduct of modern politics.
In 1945, although the British Empire had barely survived World War II, the English still believed themselves to represent the pinnacle of the soccer universe. They had originated the modern game and believed the best and most authentic version of that game could be found in the robust environment of the British Isles. The English Football Association’s conviction that English quality would hardly even be tested by international competition helps to explain its decision in the 1930s not to participate in the first three World Cups.
In 1945, the English Football Association (FA) was not even part of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body (it had quit FIFA in 1928). Still, as it began to rebuild the country’s soccer culture after World War II, it recognized that rejoining the international soccer community and measuring itself against international competition could help the country reclaim its leadership in the (footballing) world. In that spirit, the FA invited Soviet League champion Dynamo Moscow to play exhibition matches against British club teams. Dynamo arrived at London’s Croydon Airport on Nov. 4, 1945.
Coming six months after the end of World War II in Europe, the Dynamo tour represented an opportunity for Britons to learn a bit about the mysterious ally that had played such a vital role in defeating Nazi Germany. More than 250,000 people turned out to the games for a glimpse into Soviet soccer culture and to see how the Soviet Union’s state-sponsored amateurs stacked up against British professionals.
Rather shockingly (for the British at least), Dynamo went undefeated. They tied Chelsea and Glasgow Rangers, dismantled Cardiff City 10-1 and eked out a narrow win over the London team Arsenal in a game played in fog so thick that spectators could barely see the field.
Controversy soon erupted over the result.
Arsenal supporters griped about the calls made by the Soviet referee. Dynamo complained that Arsenal had padded its roster because it feared losing to the Soviet team. The Arsenal manager defended his lineup, explaining that some of his top players were unavailable because of their ongoing military service, so he had recruited players from other English teams. He assumed that the Dynamo players “would welcome an opportunity of testing their skill against a more experienced team” rather than “have a holiday jaunt against young players who, in normal times, would not have an earthly chance of getting a place in the Arsenal first team.”
The London Times drew a broader conclusion, one that cast doubt on the FA’s optimistic hopes for a return to British dominance. It described British soccer as having been “mediocre for some years, and only the size of the crowds, the publicity — and the [betting] pools — have disguised that fact.”
For Orwell, this debate was “typical of our nationalistic age,” in which even sober newspapers somehow believed “that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.” The news media and fans reduced every interaction during Dynamo’s tour to a zero-sum game of international victory or defeat — a test of national worth.
The tour came as the West’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union was beginning to unravel. The Cold War loomed on the horizon. Although Orwell was rightly skeptical of any attempt to demonize an opponent, he saw no possibility for a form of sports spectatorship that did anything but foster the sort of polarization that would drive the Cold War.
But his critique overlooked how the experience of watching a game could go beyond unthinking nationalism. British spectators crowded the endlines of Dynamo’s first game and cheered the acrobatic saves of Dynamo’s goalkeeper even when he prevented a victory for the British team. The Times reported that “no one in the vast assemblage questioned for a moment the fairness of the result” (a 3-3 draw). That form of spectatorship humanized opponents rather than polarized nations.
The point is not that those British fans necessarily embraced that humanizing possibility, but that it remained one way for them to view the game. And so, today, the key is thus not what — but rather how — we watch.
Television footage of FIFA President Gianni Infantino welcoming Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to his luxury box should provoke us to challenge FIFA’s history of cozy relationships with authoritarian regimes. The lack of any African teams in the knockout stage of the tournament underscores the continuing inequities between rich and poor, even on the soccer field.
Watching a French team filled with players like young star Kylian Mbappé, whose families trace their roots back to former French colonies, reminds us both of the torturous history of imperialism and of the ways that personal and family stories can cross national, class and racial boundaries. Croatia is the second-smallest country to ever contest a World Cup final, but it is also a country that exists only because of Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration in the 1990s.
International sporting competitions such as the World Cup or the 1945 Dynamo tour may seem inexorably to divide the world into winners and losers, reinforcing people’s emotional attachment to their side (and its politics). But they also present the opportunity to undermine those firm convictions and to turn a spotlight on geopolitical and historical realities that might otherwise be ignored.
It is easy to criticize FIFA’s corruption or the authoritarianism of World Cup hosts such as Russia or Qatar (in 2022), and Orwell was right to warn of the danger of believing that a soccer team somehow represents any nation as a whole. But paying attention to how we watch soccer can also remind us of how easy it is slip into an unthinking embrace of “our” side, even if it has nothing to do with sport.
Challenging certainties lay at the heart of Orwell’s political diagnoses. Even if “our cause is the better, […] we have to keep making it the better, which involves constant criticism.”
So, go ahead and watch the World Cup final — but make sure to keep a critical eye on more than just who puts the ball in the back of the net.