Written by: Peter Alegi
Primary Source: Football is Coming Home, July 16, 2018
Prior to this year’s FIFA World Cup, which France won last night in Moscow by defeating Croatia 4-2 in the final, I had never experienced a World Cup without my Italy.
To make matters worse, my secondary teams, USA and South Africa, also did not qualify. What would it be like to follow the most popular global cultural event as a discerning neutral observer?
Early on, the six-goal draw between Spain-Portugal, most memorable because of Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick, and Mexico’s stunning 1-0 upset of Germany jolted me into pretending I was engaged in the tournament. Fox’s insipid coverage in the U.S. did little to heighten my enthusiasm. Nothing changed when I landed in Italy for the remainder of the group stage.
Italians were detached from the World Cup. Media coverage and everyday conversations were more in tune with the Serie A transfer market as well as Scuderia Ferrari’s surging fortunes in Formula 1. From the Umbrian hills to the Lazio coast, tourists and foreigners were usually the only ones I saw glued to the prime-time matches on TVs set up in piazzas and cafés.
The emotional outbursts of a group of vacationing Swedes at an eatery near our house during their rollercoaster match against Germany anticipated by thirty seconds the iPad livestream at our dinner table. That’s how we knew that the 10-man Germans had somehow won before Toni Kroos actually curled that wonderful 95th-minute free kick into the top corner [watch it here].
Senegal—the strongest African team together with Nigeria—came closest to getting me involved on a deeper level. In the build up to Senegal-Colombia, a match the West Africans needed at least to draw to qualify for the knockout stage, I was quoted in a New York Timesfront-page story about Senegal Coach Aliou Cissé—the lowest paid coach in the World Cup [click here for full article]. I watched that crucial game with two Senegalese street vendors at a beach establishment. When the Video Assistant Referee (the infamous VAR!) reversed a penalty that the referee had initially awarded Senegal, one of the lads calmly turned to me and said in nearly perfect Italian: “That’s no problem because God is on our side.” I did not have the courage to ask him if he still felt that way after Colombia’s late goal eliminated Senegal.
As it turned out, none of the five African teams made it to the second round—a disheartening outcome that I analyzed with Assumpta Oturu, host of KPFK’s “Spotlight Africa” program. We also discussed what changes may help African nations produce better results at future World Cups [listen here (27:08-34:42)].
The single-elimination round of 16 coincided with my return to Fox TV-land. Matches were shown in the late morning and early afternoon, but that was hardly a problem since teaching my global soccer online course absolutely required keeping a close tab on the competition. (Hard life, I know.)
By this time, the only thing mitigating my growing disinterest in Russia 2018 was the presence of so many players of African and Caribbean origin in the France, Belgium, and England squads. Arguably the most acutely insightful writing on World Cup soccer, race, immigration, and national identities appeared on the Africa Is A Country website [here and here] and in an Al Jazeera piece by David Goldblatt [here].
The day before the final I returned to the intersection of sports, culture, and politics in a Voice of America story. On Sunday, as the curtain fell on French celebrations at the Luzhniki Stadium, I headed to my campus office for a live interview with China Global Television Network (see video above) to wrap up my first, and hopefully last, World Cup as a neutral observer.