FIFA World Cup: Honor of the game vs politics of the day

Walid Jawad

Published: Updated:

Which team do you cheer for when your national team isn’t a contender in the FIFA World Cup? Each game is different, yet I find myself excited for Samba dancing on the pitch.

The Brazilian team has been able to capture the imagination of football/soccer fans over consecutive World Cups; a constellation of star players lead by a legendary playmaker.

Though this week in its match against Mexico, I was cheering for Mexico to pass through to the quarterfinals.

It was not about how the team played, although they did exceptionally well in the first half, it was because of geopolitical reasons.

Viva Mexico

The political climate between the US and Mexico has been increasingly precarious; NAFTA, tariffs/trade war, illegal immigration, human trafficking, and drug smuggling across the 2000 mile border taint the otherwise beneficial economic relation both countries enjoy.

According to the Wilson Center, the border economy amounts to $3.8 trillion annually. The disparity of the $20 trillion economy to that of Mexico’s $1 trillion translates to GDP per capita of $8,200 for Mexico compared to the $57,500.

While the numbers tell a story of potential dependency, the real story is of interdependency. Legal and illegal Mexican immigrants have been willing to do jobs fewer and fewer Americans are willing to do.

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The American economy wouldn’t function as it does without their willingness to overcome all of the obstacles the US puts in their way. In a way, these workers are paying for the opportunity cost that Americans are not willing to bear, freeing them to pursue higher education, more technical jobs, and higher pay.

The US should be thankful to them by facilitating an easier way for them to be here instead of erecting more border walls. Those who are out of options will continue to risk their lives to cross where it is impassible. Since 2009, more than 580 miles out of the almost 2,000-mile border has had a barrier.

It is troubling when the politics of the day colors the sport, but it is the reality of the game

Walid Jawad

Cultural influences

In addition to the gratitude they are owed for picking up the slack for Americans, Mexicans are spicing up America with their cultural influences.

You notice the “Spanish” influence on TV and in movies, but that influence is much more prevalent in daily life in metropolitan areas and border states. Although the Spanish speaking population includes other nationalities, Mexicans are the archetypal representative for most people south of the border.

Personally, walking in Washington, DC metropolitan area I hear Spanish spoken more than any other language after English (and these days Russian and Arabic come third and fourth).

This influence is embraced by all social strata including a weekly reminder at the prestigious National Press Club as they hold a Friday Taco night to socialize over the quintessential Mexican food.

History of football

Football is a political game when and if governments choose to utilize it for their own ends. An opportunity to extend an olive branch in a grand gesture on the global stage, like the 1998 Iran-US game where flowers were extended. Or it can ignite war as it did in 1969 between El-Salvador and Honduras.

The Football War, as it was called, is an extreme example of a rivalry turned into an actual war between neighboring countries. This 100-hour war saw the El-Salvadoran army invading Honduras after the last of the three matches resulting in El-Salvador qualifying to the 1970 World Cup and bloodshed in the stands.

The game itself didn’t cause the war, but it was the catalyst for military action as the rising tensions between the two neighbors over land resources, and immigration disputes reached a crescendo. Other times, the World Cup stage was used to assert ideological posturing. Benito Mussolini showcased Fascism as Italy hosted the 1934 World Cup.

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Mussolini dubbed the tournament as Coppa Del Duce (Cup of the leader) after himself and fashioned a special cup to replace the official Jules Rimet World Cup at that time. The Italian national team won the championship that year amidst swirling accusation of game fixing.

It also offered players an opportunity to take a political stance. During their county’s war for independence, in 1958, a group of Algerian football players were called to play for the French national team in the World Cup held in Sweden that year.

Forgoing the opportunity, they ran away escaping the French authority. They refused to end up on the wrong side of their nation’s history.

Cheering the Home Team

I don’t know about you, but I sympathize with host nations, mostly because of the proud fans. That tendency is still there, but I am unable to embrace the Russian team fully.

You might dismiss my feeling because my Saudi squad lost in a humiliating fashion to the host team in the opener, but you would only be half-right.

The other half of my discontent is Russia’s continued global bullying; from Karamea, Syria’s Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.

It is troubling when the politics of the day colors the sport, but it is the reality of the game. Although the next World Cup to be held in Qatar 2022 is four years away, I am worried that the politics of the day will spoil the honor of the competition.

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One thing to remember, the politics will change and the priority of decision-makers will morph depending on fluid variables. As the NAFTA neighbors are able to weather today’s politics by coming together to co-host the 2026 World Cup, so should the Gulf states for the sake of the sport.

The 2022 World Cup will offer an opportunity for brothers to exchange flowers on the field scoring a win for their blood bonds and shared history.

Families do squabble, and although the current situation is challenging the limits of what is forgivable, leaders should be guided by the wisdom of respect for the next generation, sparing them from any decisions that might create historical regret or shame.

Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

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