Soccer, nations and religions

One arena that is open to all of humanity for one month every four years is the World Cup and while it is a big business, by virtue of the characteristics of a village fete that it likes to maintain, it does reveal, more than the Olympic Games, a few interesting things about the world we live in – about the relationship between nations and their religions, about the way an entire country’s national pride is defined by the vagaries of the game and the image each nation strives to project. This image is loaded with stereotypes; we saw this in South Africa’s soccer stadiums and in scenes from public squares in big cities all over the world. Other than toga-wearing Greeks adopting the ancient Greek look of the film «300,» we saw Italian legionnaires, English crusaders, Swiss dressed as cows, Spanish matadors, Dutchmen sporting the white cap of the Dutch milkmaid over their hairy mustaches, Japanese samurai warriors, Americans dressed as cowboys or Uncle Sam, Mexicans painted in Aztec colors etc etc. As this kind of kitsch helps instantly identify where we come from; we see it embraced even by those who in more sober moments would be sneering at it. We also saw how thin the line is between so-called highbrow religions and less established ones. Next time some «enlightened» Westerners scoff at shamans and voodoo priests, just remind them of the images we saw from a church in Amsterdam, where goalposts were placed almost at the altar and priests and parishioners dressed in orange held a special prayer to win the tournament. Meanwhile, had the World Cup lasted even a few days longer, we would probably even have seen a new religion emerge worshipping the octopus oracle. As regards soccer’s power to bring nations together, it is almost exclusively reserved for moments of victory and is very short-lived: For the losers, patriotism ends as soon as they walk off the pitch, while for winners the sentiment lasts a bit longer, at least a month or two. Of course, that is not always the case. One million Catalans marched on the eve of the World Cup final demanding complete autonomy and, while they said that would be pleased to see Spain win, they would not abandon their dream of a national team of their own, dressed in their own colors and symbols. And that is how the story goes: We watch soccer and become impassioned but it does not become a part of us.

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