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For the considerable segment of humanity that cares, we've entered the business stage of the World Cup in Russia. Eight out of 32 national teams are left standing to contend for soccer's greatest prize. Anybody who's paying attention will tell you that the 2018 tournament has been full of remarkable surprises, with numerous giants of the game — including Germany, Spain, Argentina and Portugal — bowing out early, and a number of unlikely sides, including host country Russia, reaching the quarterfinals.

Cynicism about the Kremlin's propaganda and fears over racist hooliganism shrouded this year's tournament before it began. But that has been dispelled over the past few weeks by the thrilling clashes, historic upsets and scenes of World-Cup-inspired joy from around the world. Long after we forget about Mexico's second-round defeat to Brazil, we'll remember the incredible footage of Mexican fans in Russia and at home lofting any Korean they encountered into the air in celebration of a separate South Korean win that secured Mexico passage from the first round.


Mexican fans celebrate with a South Korean in Madrid on June 27, 2018, after South Korea defeated Germany, enabling Mexico to advance to the next round. (Andrea Comas/AP)

Russians of all stripes, including prominent opponents of President Vladimir Putin, were jubilant when their team unexpectedly defeated Spain Sunday. The victory, wrote journalist Julia Ioffe for The Washington Post, gave Russians something rather rare: “a fleeting national unity around a national victory that is untainted by politics, unalloyed with factionalism and un-spoilable with allegations of subterfuge. No one celebrated like this when Russia crushed the competition in the medal race at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 — a victory of which it was later stripped amid allegations of systemic doping.”

The World Cup, as I wrote the day the tournament started, is a rare festival of nations, animated by both tribal passions and an unusual, perhaps fleeting, global solidarity. We feel empathy and connection to fans and athletes from faraway climes, exult in their triumphs and wallow in their pain. The tournament also offers a reminder every four years of both the importance of inclusion and the animosities stoked within multicultural societies.

Among the remaining favorites in the World Cup are the multiethnic squads of France and Belgium, teeming with talent pulled from poorer suburbs populated by immigrants and minorities. When France won the World Cup in 1998, led by a cast of stars with origins in former colonies, their success was hailed as a defining moment for an increasingly diverse nation.

But there is a darker side to the equation: Subsequent failures by the French team saw far-right politicians harp on the supposed lack of patriotism of nonwhite players. The same dynamic is now playing out in Germany: The national team's reinvention over the past decade and a half is in no small part thanks to an influx of immigrant youths schooled in the country's industrial heartlands. But when the defending World Cup champions made an ignominious exit in the first round last week, the scapegoats were immediately obvious: The loyalties of Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, two German-born players of Turkish origin, were called into question after the players had a brief meeting in May with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


German soccer players Ilkay Gundogan, left, and Mesut Ozil met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in London on May 13. (Kayhan Ozer/Turkish Presidential Press Office/AFP)

“I see him as an example of how integration has failed,” Oliver Multusch of Germany's far-right AfD party told HuffPost, referring to Ozil. “Germanness could have helped shape his personality, but he never learned much about it.” In the same conversation, Multusch gestured to another soccer player, Sami Khedira, as an improvement because he was only half Tunisian.

Germany's only win during the tournament came against Sweden after a mistake made by Swedish player Jimmy Durmaz, who is from the country's considerable community of Assyrian immigrants. After the defeat, he was bombarded with racist social-media comments, labeling him a “darkie,” “bloody Arab,” “Taliban” and a “terrorist.”

With his teammates rallying around him the next day, he issued a statement: “I am Swedish and I am proud to represent the Swedish national team — it is the biggest thing you can do as a footballer,” he said. “I will never let any racists destroy my pride.” His compatriots joined with him and shouted “f--- racism” in a stirring, if blunt, show of unity.

Beyond the tensions within countries, the World Cup also offers an arena for national grievances. The most politically fraught moment so far in this tournament involved a match between Switzerland and Serbia. On paper, that doesn't look like a particularly loaded encounter, but the Swiss team is in part a construct of the Balkan wars: Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, two of the top Swiss players, are the descendants of ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo. Xhaka's father served time as a political prisoner in then Yugoslavia in the 1980s. Shaqiri has the flag of independent Kosovo stitched on to his cleats.

“Political and economic instability, beginning in the 1990s, led to high rates of emigration. Close to 20 percent of Albania’s population left the country — and many headed to Switzerland, Germany and other destinations, including the United States. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo in 1999 to escape ethnic conflict, followed by subsequent waves of emigrants seeking to escape poverty,” wrote Ani Kokobobo for The Post's Monkey Cage blog.

Against Serbia, Xhaka, Shaqiri (and a number of other ethnically Albanian players) were mercilessly heckled by Serbian fans. And then, when they scored vital equalizing and winning goals, they both crossed their hands in the symbol of the Albanian double eagle, a potent nationalist gesture. “For those abroad, like Xhaka and Shaqiri, who face cultural loss in the process of integration in adopted countries, the eagle often remains the only visible trace of their Albanian identity,” Kokobobo added.


Granit Xhaka, left, and Xherdan Shaqiri use their hands to form the emblem of the Albanian double eagle as a means of taunting Serbian players during the match between Switzerland and Serbia in Kaliningrad, Russia, on June 22. (Laurent Gillieron/EPA-EFE/)

Their gestures, though, sparked controversy and earned a sanction from FIFA, soccer's governing body, which plays an awkward role trying to keep politics out of a sport inextricably tied up with political passions. Xhaka, Shaqiri and Switzerland's World Cup ended on Tuesday to defeat against Durmaz's Sweden. But the Swiss victory against Serbia saw streets in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, fill with cheering fans, celebrating a result that was simultaneously not theirs but also especially theirs.

And that is the strange magic of the World Cup: There may be only eight countries left, but billions of people remain captivated by the glory and tragedy of a tournament that holds a mirror up to the world, for good and for bad, and shows us new ways to belong.

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