Why World Cup can mirror but not resolve global complexities

Ehtesham Shahid
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On July 15, the world will have a new football champion. The team, not necessarily the best in the world, will be crowned and remain so until another round of qualifiers build up to the crescendo we are witnessing now.

The World Cup thus far has already separated men from the boys. Some champions have fallen from grace, some promises have remained unfulfilled and some new scripts written. All that is familiar territory.


As ever, the beautiful game is mirroring complexities and frailties of life. In fact, the all-Europe affair that it has reduced itself to in a way reflects how different a trajectory football follows to the world of politics and economy.

Europe is definitely not the center of the world as far as today’s economic progress is concerned. Iceland and Ireland, the two European countries with GDP topping 5 percent, very quickly went out of the reckoning at the World Cup.

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On the other hand, Asia, the region with the most rapid economic growth, had next to nothing to show for in the soccer arena. Africa and the Arab world showed promise but couldn’t live up to expectations.

In other words, economic power doesn’t automatically make a successful footballing nation and vice versa. Events such as these generally make countries cobble up players from rich fat clubs, invoking nationalistic fervor.

That is why soon after the tournament is over clubs go back to making multi-million deals for star performers irrespective of which country or region they come from. In fact, the process gathers momentum during the World Cup as talents are spotted for longer runs at the club level.

Marketplace has become the best judge of footballing talent and also the most unbiased bidder.

Football undoubtedly holds a mirror to the society but to assume that it can answer complex questions surrounding immigration and human rights is too far-fetched an idea

Ehtesham Shahid

Soccer immigrants

Hogging the limelight, and rightly so, has been stories of first-generation immigrant footballers who are making it big on the world stage.

While their success reinforces the opportunities available to them in these countries, it also suggests that the countries of their origin could have benefited from their talent if they had created circumstances to ensure they stayed.

But just because these players have made it to their national teams doesn’t in any way end the predicament millions of refugees and immigrants are in. Football undoubtedly holds a mirror to the society but to assume that it can answer complex questions surrounding immigration and human rights is too far-fetched an idea.

While Germans lost early in Russia – and the social media had a gala time highlighting historical parallels – this by no means suggests its current state of economic or political affairs. Russia’s spectacular progress during early stages of the tournament suggested a nationalist fervor, which was cut short by the sudden death of penalties.

Over the years, some teams have exceeded expectations while others have flattered to deceive. This has been the story of all such tournaments. Some big guns always fly back early while few underdogs last longer than expected.

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At the end of the day, the success of a team boils down to a few critical factors – a master tactician, few outstanding blokes on the field, extensive preparations and strokes of luck. Indeed, it takes ages to develop a system that builds the backbone of a team.

Stories of individual brilliance also run parallel to such tournaments and beyond. So a Mohammed Salah, despite Egypt’s under-par performance, will continue to shine. He is likely to be a more enduring symbol of football uniting cultures than a team full of immigrants who melt away to respective clubs as soon as the tournament is over.

Success of teams such as Belgium or France has been attributed to immigrant players but this is definitely going to change the discourse surrounding immigrants in these countries. Football can cloud jingoistic behavior for a while but not forever.

The beautiful game definitely plays a role in uniting people across geographical and political boundaries but it would be too much to expect it to bring the world closer. Ours is a complex world and football only mirrors that complexity.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham and he can be reached at [email protected]

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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