The Feverish, Beautiful Madness of the World Cup

Saudi Arabia mid-fielder Saudi Arabia Salem Al-Dawsari (center) celebrating with a flip after scoring a spectacular goal that gave Saudi Arabia the lead and the win in the Group stage match against Argentina at Lusail.

The World Cup started in Qatar less than a week ago and, my oh my, it has set the world on fire. What else is there in life to compete with the feverish, beautiful, almost inexplicable madness of the World Cup?

There is, in reality, only one World Cup.  India and a few other countries that, with the exception of the late entrant to cricket, The Netherlands, inherited the game from England as former colonies recently competed in the ICC T20 World Cup. There is similarly the ICC One Day International version.  America has the gumption to call its baseball finals the “World Series” and similarly the National Basketball Association (NBA), which is confined to the United States (with a slight nod to Canada) and until a couple of decades ago barely even had any players from outside the US, describes the winners of the finals as “world champions”.  But the inescapable truth is that these are all comparatively parochial exercises in sports.  The only event that merits the designation of World Cup is the global battle for football supremacy.

In our day, as has been the case for some time, nationalism is inextricable from sports.  Thirty-two teams, having gone through the qualifying rounds, are competing this year in Qatar for the champion’s trophy, and in 2026 the number of countries that will field team increases to 48.  The fans come decked in their country’s colours.  The thrill that passes through their entire body when their country scores, sending them into convulsions, is akin to sheer bliss.  And, yet, it is the particular feature of what the Brazilians call “the beautiful game” that nationalism is just as often transcended as it is reinforced.  But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

To get a glimpse of what moves the world, what animates people, and the passion that impels men to invest their life savings and travel thousands of miles to follow their beloved team, one must turn to the World Cup.  It is a phenomenon quite unlike any other:  many suppose that the splendour of the Olympics is more than a match for the World Cup, but that is a wholly erroneous view.  There is something quite staid and officious about the Olympics; it projects power in a dull and orderly fashion.  To be sure, every now and then an Usain Bolt comes along and acts like a lightning rod, and likewise the female gymnasts and the divers with their synchronized moves before they plunge into the water impress and earn not only a name for themselves but cultural capital for the countries that they represent.  But the Dionysian – the ecstatic, sensuous, emotional, Bacchanalian – element that characterizes the World Cup is missing from the Olympics.  It is no surprise that China has over the last two decades made its way to the top besides the United States in the Olympics medals standings but is a non-entity in the World Cup.  The boring monstrosity that is the Chinese Communist Party would be lost at sea in the excess and ecstasy that is the World Cup.

This edition of the World Cup in Qatar has had its share of scandals, stories, and surprises—and the event is still in its early stages, with Brazil just having played its opening game.  There are rumours that the Qataris bribed their way into becoming the Chosen Ones.  For Europeans, from whom the rest of the world has learned a great many abominations such as racism, colonialism, and genocide, to pretend that that this alone is scandalous is something like the kettle calling the pot black.  Qatar is very hot in the summer, the usual time of the year when the World Cup is staged, and so it was moved to November-December, a comparatively “cooler” time of the year in a country where it remains at least warm throughout the year.  Perhaps the timing of the world’s most famous sporting event is inconvenient for Europeans, but it is time that Europe, which receives far more slots than any other continent, learned that it is no longer the center of the world.

There is much grumbling that Qatar is not permitting fans to wear armbands that display support for LGBTQ+ rights and European fans are scandalized that the sale of beer at World Cup stadiums has been prohibited.  But, if one had to speak of the scandalous, far more pertinent is the fact that several hundred migrant labourers, whose story I will convey in a separate piece, have died building World Cup stadiums in Qatar.  Their deaths will be put down to the usual weary disclaimer, “That is the way of the world.” Meanwhile, FIFA, the international football governing body that organizes the World Cup, has revenues of $5 billion and many of the players themselves earn tens of millions of dollars annually. 

Nevertheless, unless we think that the beautiful does not have a sordid side to it, this World Cup has already been a joyous explosion of talent, generating a feverish excitement and results that have stunned those who love this game that, at its best, is absolutely mesmerizing.  Spain demolished Costa Rica, 7-0, even if at times it appeared to be just playing a practice match.  Iran, which is being hammered by protests back home—another story which the world should watch with utmost attention—received a different kind of drubbing on the field as England made mincemeat of it, 6-2.  France had a spectacular beginning and, by a score of 4-1, made short work of Australia.  But this World Cup has been nothing if not a mélange of the predictable and the unpredictable, reason and superstition, the mundane and the extraordinary—and the unpredictable is always more promising. Who would have thought that Japan would send Germany, a powerhouse of football, into misery?  Two goals from two Japanese strikers were more than enough to neutralize and subdue the Germans who had one goal from a penalty. 

It is said that Japan’s victory had been foretold.  The day before the match, Taiyo, a river otter at an aquarium, had placed a miniature football in a blue bucket adorned with a Japanese flag, ignoring both the red bucket with a German flag and the yellow bucket that signified a drawn game.  In an earlier generation, the Europeans would have chuckled at this story and described it as a species of “Oriental superstition.”  But the world is now chuckling at the Germans.  The Japanese are calling upon the government to declare a national holiday—and thus emulate Saudi Arabia, which brings us to the most astonishing surprise unleashed thus far at this World Cup, or indeed in international sports.  No one expects anything much from the Saudis:  the oil-rich kingdom is, in the common imagination, good for nothing, its opulence having derived from neither from the labour nor the skill or intelligence of its own citizens. The country has made many strides in becoming green, while making the rest of the world dependent upon oil.  It is known the world over for many other unpleasantries, from unattractive potentates to forbidding women (until just some months ago) from driving cars.

Saudi Arabia has barely a presence on the international sport scene, except perhaps in falconry, and its football team is home-grown with little experience in international matches. Their opening match was with Argentina—a country that, much like Brazil, dreams football. Argentina came into the World Cup fresh from its victory over Brazil in COPA 2021, the championship that establishes football supremacy in South America.  Saudi Arabia’s leader, Mohammed bin Salman (known generally as MBS), had apparently instructed the players to go and enjoy themselves, and not think about winning.  The Saudi footballers more than enjoyed themselves; they disobeyed MBS and pulled off a stunning victory over Argentina, a win all the more spectacular as it came off an extraordinary goal—a demonstration of enormous skill, a flight of pure joy—by Al-Dawsari.  MBS declared the following day a national holiday in Saudi Arabia.

How far Saudi Arabia will go in this World Cup is anyone’s guess.  There was, a decade ago, the Arab Spring—a rather more momentous development in world politics. It did not last very long; some will say that it eventually led to chaos and lawlessness, even facilitating the rise of autocratic leaders such as Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the President of Egypt who rules with an iron hand.  Saudi Arabia’s victory over Argentina is being described as a miracle, almost as an awakening of the Arab world.  It suggests that football, too, is being democratized:  the day when neither a South American nor European team wins the World Cup may not be very far off into the future.  The ascent of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations in the football world is a lovely thought. 

But this victory too can only be seen as bittersweet. MBS is, to use a colloquialism, a nasty piece of work, at least privately thought by the US and European countries to have ordered the gruesome killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.  He has been looking for ways to rehabilitate himself and one can be certain that he, much as many other autocratic “leaders” have done, will use the victory of the Saudi national football team over Argentina to flaunt himself as a genuine leader, a visionary who is opening the country to the West and inspired the players to outdo themselves. The World Cup has never been only about football:  power, politics, and nationalism are intrinsic to the game.

Yet, there is, still, the artistry and elegance of that delivery into the net by Al-Dawsari that sent the world into a tizzy.  It is all this that makes for the beautiful, feverish madness of the World Cup.

First published in English at abplive.in under the same title on 25 November 2022.

Hindi translation published as विश्व कप की बेकरारी, बेताबी वाला खूबसूरत सा पागलपन फीफा on 25 November 2022.

Telugu translation published as ఫుట్‌బాల్ ప్రపంచ కప్! ఇది కేవలం ఆట కాదు అంతకుమించి! on 25 November 2020 at telugu.abplive.com

Bengali translation published as বিক্ষোভ, প্রতিবাদের মিছিলেও কাতার মেতেছে ফুটবল উৎসবে on 25 November 2020

*A Monumental Non-event: The Commonwealth Games and All That Rubbish

Mani Shankar Aiyar, a veteran Congress politician who has held various Cabinet positions in previous decades, and is presently a sitting Member of Parliament, has said the unsayable, indeed the unthinkable.  Aiyar is characterized in yesterday’s Times of India as an “outspoken and somewhat maverick” politician on account of his outburst against the Commonwealth Games, though the consideration that his intellectual perspicacity, unusual for a politician of any party, may be one reason why he is a maverick seems not to have occurred to the Times’ writer. Aiyar has now gone on record with the view that the failure of the Commonwealth Games, scheduled to be held in Delhi this October, is – taking a leaf from Shakespeare — a consummation devoutly to be wished for.  ‘I am delighted in a way’, said Aiyar recently, ‘because rains are causing difficulties for the Commonwealth Games.  Basically, I will be very unhappy if the Games are successful because then they will start bringing Asian Games, Olympic Games and all these.’

It is not often that a senior politician, one moreover who has served as the Sports Minister and harbored close ties to the Nehru clan, would go on record hoping that the Commonwealth Games become a resounding failure.   In some countries, such an observation would be tantamount to political suicide, and I would not be surprised that had some official in China made a similar comment before the onset of the Beijing Olympics, he or she would have been roasted alive on burning coals.   One might say that Aiyar is no longer eyeing a cabinet seat, or, if one had a more expansive view of the matter, Aiyar’s comment may be taken as a testimony to the ‘live and let live’ mentality that, after all the fistfights, scuffles, abuses, and occasionally violence that mark the relationships between Indian politicians, still characterizes the world of Indian politics.  To be sure, Aiyar’s remarks did not go down well with Suresh Kalmadi, the chairperson of the organizing committee, or Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi.  Aiyar’s remarks, Kalmadi charged, are ‘anti-national’ and ‘irresponsible’.  To be called an anti-national these days in India is to invite comparison with Maoists, terrorists, or young insurgents in Kashmir, and if Kalmadi had any of these comparisons in mind, his own rebuke of Aiyar strikes one as bordering on the ‘irresponsible’.  (This is not at all to say that Maoists or Kashmiri insurgents are anti-national, but the overwhelming middle-class propensity to think so must be kept in mind in assessing Kalmadi’s remarks.)

Let us, however, leave aside for the moment the redoubtable Aiyar and the dull Kalmadi.  We can turn our attention more profitably to this elephant in the room called ‘Commonwealth Games’.  Obscure as they are, the most monumental non-event planned in India in decades, the Commonwealth Games are giving Indian officials, who have a monstrously mistaken idea of the importance of these games, sleepless nights.  Mrs. Dikshit, an intelligent, highly experienced, and shrewd politician, has more reason than anyone else to feel troubled and restless.   Unlike Mani Shankar Aiyar, she would feel exceedingly unhappy, I should say wretched, if the Games failed.  With just a little over two months left before the commencement of the Games, Delhi, which is supposed to showcase India to the rest of the world – assuming, as we shall see, that the ‘rest of the world’ is at all interested in this sporting event – appears woefully unprepared to host the games.  Most of the stadiums have not yet been completed, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which was inaugurated earlier this week, has already sprung a leak.  Connaught Place, once viewed as the pride of the city, has the appearance of a war zone, and nearly the entire city has been dug up by the MCD, CWPD, NDMC, and other government agencies.  [Yes, India is a country of acronyms, as I have observed before on this blog —  here, at any rate, are the translations, respectively:  Municipal Corporation of Delhi; Central Works Public Department; New Delhi Municipal Corporation.]  Delhi has three World Heritage sites, which are expected to receive many more visitors during the Games, and none has the basic facilities mandated as a condition for continued listing.

Let us, however, suppose that the city’s officials pull off a miracle and everything is patched together just in time for the opening ceremony.  Whether out of respect for the ‘Father of the Nation’, whose birth anniversary is celebrated on October 2nd, a national holiday in India, or owing simply to the calendar set by the international secretariat, the Commonwealth Games are scheduled to open on October 3rd.  (We can add Gandhi’s name to the list of those who would have been unhappy, not, in this case, either by the success or the failure of the Games, but by the very idea of the Games.  So, in our inventory, we already have three forms of unhappiness.)  The most expensive tickets to the opening ceremony, which the organizers hope will instill incalculable pride in the inhabitants of Delhi, cost an astounding Rs 50,000 [see http://www.cwgdelhi2010.org/] — an amount that would be nearly equivalent to the annual earnings in Delhi of many a maid, night watchman at a factory, and unskilled worker.  Mr Aiyar claims, justifiably so, that the astronomical amount, something in the neighbourhood of Rs 30,000 crores [1 crore = 10 million], spent on preparing India or rather Delhi for the Games would have been better spent on enhancing sports facilities in Indian towns and villages and giving training to tens of thousands of school-children.  Others have argued, just as plausibly, that many of the huge stadiums are likely to lie idle once the Commonwealth Games are over, and that the Games have drained the country’s resources.

There is no gainsaying the merit of these arguments, and Indian critics might make a yet stronger case by pointing to the Athens Olympics, which, by some estimates, put Greece on the course of economic disaster.  The city of Montreal was paying for its Olympics three decades after the fact.  Nevertheless, the folly of holding the Commonwealth Games runs much deeper than is commonly imagined, though this can only be gauged by considering the immense psychological, cultural, and political investment India has made in the Games.  The Indian state and its mandarins are labouring under the impression that the Commonwealth Games will bring India before the world stage and enhance the prestige of the country, something – though admittedly on a smaller stage – like what the World Cup has allegedly done for South Africa or what the Chinese thought that the Beijing Olympics did for the People’s Republic of China, but this is a wholly erroneous view.  The idea of the Commonwealth is obsolete, and has never meant anything more to people in India, Ghana, Nigeria, and other former British colonies than the prospect of studying in Britain on a Commonwealth Scholarship.  To the rest of the world, the Commonwealth is about as hot a topic of conversation as Lapland.  The Americans don’t have the foggiest idea about the Commonwealth, but this will not suffice as a demonstration of the sheer irrelevancy of the Commonwealth (and its Games) since the Americans are in any case colossally ignorant about much of the world.   The point here is that no one else in the world much cares about the Commonwealth either.  The Indian government is claiming that it expects to receive something like an additional 40,000 overseas visitors, but if the foreign tourists had their wits about them, they might understand why those among Delhi’s citizens who can afford it plan to flee the city during the Games.  The city will be lucky if it gets any foreign tourists beyond the norm.

India has aspirations to be a world power, or at least a country of considerable consequence for its neighbors in south, southeast and west Asia, and it views the Commonwealth Games as a platform to stake its claim to be taken seriously as an emerging power.  However, the Commonwealth Games are not merely a poor cousin of the Olympics, but rather a sure sign of the continuing irrelevance of India in the larger arena of world affairs.  In this respect, how the Commonwealth Games turn out is quite immaterial, though Mani Shankar Aiyar is doubtless right that a successful Games, whatever that might mean, will be construed by the Indian state as a sign to move on to something bigger.  The Commonwealth Games is, in the last analysis, a rather trifling and tiresome affair – and it should be treated as such.