A symphony of amorphous loyalties: The World Cup revisited

Opinion by Winston Shi
July 19, 2014, 9:39 a.m.

When the aliens invade and send their scientists to examine our civilization, they will find that the most important television event on earth is the FIFA World Cup, an international soccer tournament, and they will shake their heads in surprise at how people can care so much about a game. People stop wars to watch the World Cup; at other times soccer is blamed for starting them. Surely, the aliens would think, humans failed to rally against the invasion because of their utter lack of perspective.

Those aliens would be wrong, though – or at the very least misguided. Truth be told, the World Cup, and international soccer in particular, teach us that the very notion of “perspective” is inadequate. Although Americans may not care very much about professional soccer, nearly every other nation in the world does, and the Cup represents one of the few examples in which the globe’s efforts are focused on a single point. Four hundred years after Shakespeare, global soccer has achieved a world where all the world’s a stage.

Something real, concrete and worthy must underlie so universal an affection, no? But perhaps the aliens have a point. Perhaps we place too much emphasis on our sports – or rather, perhaps we care too much about what outside meanings we force upon them. Why do sports matter to us? If they are part of our culture, then we have to look at them from a cultural standpoint. For those of you trying to explain to your friend or your significant other why people care about sports so much, this is an attempt to explain why.


Sports command our attention despite being inherently meaningless; moreover, that curiously amorphous quality is what ultimately lends sports its true appeal. Although they are paid handsomely to ply their craft, magical athletes like Messi and Ronaldo and Rodriguez live in the realm of metaphor, and they would hardly be so rich if they did not command attention beyond the boundaries of the soccer pitch: The appeal of soccer is that it means nothing, and therefore can be taken to mean anything. At the World Cup, we saw this effect in full bloom.

The communal aspect of soccer is part of its inherent glory – and Americans, divorced from that international community by an accident of fate, don’t understand that they are missing out not because soccer is inherently superior to American football but because everybody else is playing it. What’s the fun in winning a game that nobody else plays? As a culture of split athletic loyalties, we can’t seem to truly process how a single game can be so integral to a country’s sense of self-worth – that the fact that everyone else is trying to beat you at one competition makes victory in that game all the sweeter.

As the Cup sometimes proves, in an international context, the martial metaphors are obvious. To the Argentines, soccer was payback to the English for the Falklands War; to the Aztecs, the ritual ballgame was a bloody religious rite; to us Americans, hockey was the Cold War fought on ice.

But even after I bring up the Miracle on Ice, the fact remains that sports are primarily lost on us as Americans because their international importance is lost on us as well. Joke though we might about our own ethnocentrism, Americans generally don’t bring up baseball or American football when trying to explain why America is so great. With the end of the Soviet Union, not even basketball or hockey – sports played on an international stage – carry that kind of weight. The games we play take on different meanings across the globe; in the United States, they are painted in slightly less vivid colors.

And taking a specifically American perspective: when it comes to national self-worth, we live in a world that we have had the opportunity to define.

As we travel to faraway lands through forests of American brands and colors and cultural firepower, we remain unaware of just how much we have shaped the world others live in as well. In short, we have far less need to define ourselves through international sports – or any other arena – than any other nation on the planet, and the world is fully aware of this. It’s why we’ll never care about soccer as much as Germany or Brazil or Uruguay, why there will never be an American pope or an American U.N. Secretary-General, why so many Americans secretly feel guilty when the U.S. soccer team crushes other nations’ dreams.

Americans who grew up on stories of Jack Bauer annihilating terrorists from sea to shining sea don’t realize that for Argentinians, Lionel Messi is their Jack Bauer.

We dominate the world. And that means our heroes can never matter as Messi does.


Yet Americans do care about sports! That much is obvious, and even if the stakes are rarely all that high, we still see sports through prisms we ourselves create.

Our sporting culture is domestic, and it only stands to reason that when we attach meaning to sports, we do so in more local ways. Athletics are a language that adapts to a far greater panoply of situations than war and peace. In Brazil, complaints about hosting the World Cup have become shorthand for a far greater dissatisfaction about corruption and inequality in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The weight that athletics carries is notable not only for its scope but also its universality.

Within our borders, it’s still not surprising that the sports and rivalries Americans care the most about are the ones tied to movements and places far beyond the court or the pitch or the field. Every enduring rivalry in American sports is tinged with class or sectionalism – urban vs. rural, East Coast vs. West Coast, NorCal vs. SoCal.

Again, the soccer world – alternately insightful and insane – provides a better example. In Glasgow, the Old Firm rivalry between the clubs Rangers and Celtic has become synonymous with the tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Scotland. I don’t pretend to be an expert on sectarianism in the British Isles, but with fan violence that for generally far exceeds Americans’ worst dreams, sometimes it seems to onlookers as though the Reformation never really ended. The Old Firm illustrates both the amorphous quality of sports and the consequences of when cultural subtext completely overwhelms the game. When we think of humans’ lack of perspective, Glasgow is exhibit one.

Scotland’s two greatest teams are twins in denial, each spurred on to ever-greater deeds by a viciously mutual hatred that makes soccer seem irrelevant in comparison. They were playing each other long before they became metonyms for religious conflict, but to call theirs a sporting rivalry co-opted by culture is a solution utterly without nuance. Rangers and Celtic embody man’s desire to make every stage a theater of dreams in ways that the World Cup can only dream of. It’s easy to imagine that if one had never existed, the other would have never risen to the heights it did…but from what sports teaches us, if one had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent the other.


Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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