Asides and Offsides: Notes on the World Cup We’re (Kind of) All in This Together: Watching the World Cup at the End of the World
It isn’t that we sought to separate the “real world” from the matches—just that, for a time, we had something else to think about.
This is , a World Cup 2018 notebook by Asides and Offsides . Bryan Washington
For the past five weeks, the World Cup served as a prolonged beacon of blissful distraction, and I think it’s fair to say there were also several moments when I experienced unfiltered joy. That’s honestly a strange thing to feel in a year when it’s threatened by every possible signal from the world around us. None of my teams made it terribly far in their brackets. And the news cycle’s immediate digestion of the tournament is hardly a positive sign of things to come. It’s been impossible to separate the pitch’s reality from our day-to-day situation , despite the States being out of the figurative and literal loop, but for many the tournament served as a barrier to despair nonetheless.
A few instances: After Korea’s sudden victory over Germany, eliminating both teams from the tournament while propelling Mexico forward (where they would lose to a stunted Brazil ), a Mexican guy bought me a shot because I was wearing an old South Korean jersey (yelling, “YEAH, MOTHERFUCKER!”). This was followed by another shot from another stranger (“YEAH!”), and then a beer from a third dude (“BARTENDER!”). I walked home, feeling warm, to cars honking in the streets. It was ten in the morning on a work day. I logged online to tweet about it. In our shared digital space, I found watched those eruptions happening all over the globe , in tandem, even among folks peripherally affiliated with the match .
Later, in other bars across Houston, there was a collective indifference among its patrons as England trounced Colombia , then Sweden . When England fell to Croatia , I watched as a diner full of Colombian fans rocked their tables in the final minutes, nearly flipping one over, and when the final whistle was blown one lady stood to yell “ QU É VIVA COLOMBIA QU É VIVA COLOMBIA QU É VIVA COLOMBIA .”
Then there was the sudden surge of anger following Russia’s victory over Spain, which disappeared entirely after their defeat at the heels of Croatia. A few days earlier, I’d felt the exact opposite of that feeling as Belgium emerged from behind— seemingly out of nowhere, like every other team this year —to trounce the Japanese. One buddy of mine continued to sport his Nigeria jersey as the tournament progressed, watching the matches play out in the present while already plotting for the next tournament. And we didn’t call him silly or presumptuous or bitter—because if you weren’t rooting for France or Croatia (or even if you were), then you were probably doing the same thing.
It was, I guess, an emotional torrent, but one that isn’t isolated from the tide that’s been rising over the past few years. I experienced a lot of these emotional extremes with my phone in hand—sometimes in the physical company of others, sometimes not. The World Cup magnified the ways we communicate with one another, and how far we were willing to go to bridge the gaps between us . That these events could exist side-by-side with the world’s larger rotations was stupefying at times. It isn’t that we sought to separate the “real world” from the matches ( or that we could )—just that, for a time, we had something else to think about as well: There was the ball. There was the goal. There were the players trying to make it happen. There was the beer you were drinking and the stool you were sitting on and maybe the jeers of the folks standing beside you.
But it was entirely possible, say, to feel joy in a bar, beaming off the endorphins from a wink and a drink with a newfound friend, only for that emotion to evaporate entirely upon turning the ignition in my car, or opening the door, or even stepping back outside.
The afternoon before the final game, I sat with my parents in their backyard in Houston as they debated whether, and if, they’d be watching the World Cup final. My mother immigrated from a country that wasn’t competing and isn’t too hot when they do, but here she was, following statistics on the phone that she’s just beginning to master. She asked my father who he was following. He said, France, but he didn’t say why. Making a face, my mother texted an old French neighbor, and she asked if they were throwing a party, and the woman responded instantly: Of course they were.
We talked about whether we would go, and which one of us would be fit to drive, and then somehow, suddenly, apropos of nothing, the conversation quickly turned to immigration, and the origins of the team’s star players, and then the children being separated at the Mexico/US border . My mother’s phone buzzed, and she tapped at the screen, and I reached over to settle the ringer. Well, said my mother, but neither of us knew what to follow that with. We had already veered back into reality. It hadn’t taken very much. But then my mother texted her friend, asking her what we should bring, and they said, Nothing, just yourselves. We’ll be here when you show up.
Eventually, a French team made up largely of immigrants and their descendants made its way to the final to defeat Croatia , representing a country constantly weighed down by xenophobic and Islamophobic tendencies. I watched the match with a group of friends in a lounge. Another group watched alongside us, reacting a few seconds later on a delayed stream of the game. But the pitch hadn’t even been cleared before one of us asked, Do you think NATO will still be around tomorrow? And everyone, it seemed, snapped back into the present simultaneously.
Sports—and fútbol , specifically—have always been and will always be political. You can spend an entire life engrossed in the game, entirely unaware of that fact. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t a product of it. Or touched by it. Being unaware of your role in that mechanism—or worse, refusing to acknowledge it, or denigrating the awareness of others—is a choice, too.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sports will never be enough to mask a country’s ingrained ailments, or to justify the violence enacted on its residents, or to offer the shining facade of an equitable entity when those living inside of it know otherwise. But, at the same time, sports provide some of the largest stages we have, with the most “palatable” speakers delivering what is oftentimes the most diluted incarnation of criticism into the most powerful of microphones. It can be one thing to hear your local activists, decades into the work, decrying the dearth of neighborhood over-policing, and another for an all-star quarterback to highlight those same injustices on his own stage . It can be one thing for an artist to spend her days unearthing the muck of her country’s violations against free speech and political activism , and another when her protest is “validated” by a high-five from an internationally acclaimed footballer ; the message is made no clearer by the co-sign, but it might reach an audience that’s otherwise unattainable. (Although, sometimes, those footballers turn out to be the real deal .) For now, these gestures are what we have to work with.
You could argue that our continued willingness to gather for the World Cup, to watch it together, is reason enough to keep trying to use sports as a medium for connection and larger change when we can. And it remains to be seen whether that’ll be possible, but here’s something that can’t be taken away: for a moment, we were all there . All of us. In a collective experience. And whether you enjoyed it or not, whether you’d looked forward to it or not, whether you’d loathed or dreamt for any of the outcomes, that presence was what mattered. For a minute there, everyone cared.