Carlos Monsivais, the Mexican writer, encapsulated the national mood when, as this summer, Mexico’s presidential elections and the World Cup coincide: “Football is first. Second is the craziness around football. Then there is the rest of the world.”
As this World Cup hurtles through its first whirlwind week of games, the same can be said for both the hosts, and, increasingly, everyone else.
Football deserves its top spot. We have had, so far: one game of truly exceptional football, Spain vs Ronaldo; two fabulous upsets, with Mexico beating Germany and Iceland getting a draw against Argentina (who were then pummelled 3-0 by Croatia on Thursday); an entirely unexpected rush of blood among the Russian squad whose two wins and eight goals have ignited a level of football fever not seen since the team made the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships. We have had no goalless draws, no obvious frontrunners, a victory for Africa (Senegal beating Poland), two for Asia (Japan and Iran), and, in Belgium and England, two often disappointing European sides who finally looked like they might be more than the sum of their parts.
The craziness, however, is catching up. Conventional national TV ratings for games are remarkable. In Iceland, 99.6 percent of viewers were watching their game with Argentina. England’s opening game with Tunisia attracted the biggest audience of the year by far, six million more than for the Royal Wedding in May. Even a cursory trawl through social media reveals that many – from a girl’s school in Senegal, to a nursery in rural Uruguay – are rearranging their schedule around these matches. No mere metaphor, football shook the earth in Mexico City, where the celebrations following Hirving Lozano’s winning goal against Germany registered on the city’s seismic monitors.
In Russia itself, the early colour has been provided by the large Iranian and Latin American contingents, above all the Peruvians and their fabulous diagonal red stripe shirts. Drawn from back home and across the Peruvian diaspora, with tickets or without, a trip to the nation’s first World Cup since 1982 has required, for many, emergency measures: credit card splurges, selling the car, taking redundancy or selling the family silver. One can only hope that a victory against Australia in their final group match might provide some consolation for their early exit from the World Cup.
The Iranian and Mexican diasporas have also brought atmosphere and controversy: the latter, for their persistent homophobic chanting; the former for displaying banners in support of women still officially banned from watching men’s football in mixed viewing zones or stadiums. Iran’s opening victory against Morocco saw huge mixed crowds dance on the streets of every major city. In an extraordinary reversal of policy, their 1-0 defeat to Spain was watched in the Azadi Stadium in Tehran by a crowd that included thousands of women.
A lesser, but still significant transformation of public space is under way in Russia. Having long crushed any possibility of either unsavoury hooligan antics or public protest in World Cup cities, the nation’s security forces are, in the tourist zones at any rate, in holiday mode, tolerating hitherto unacceptable levels of public assembly and drunkenness. The public reverie, initiated by visiting fans, has now been joined by the locals who, in the wake of Russia’s 3-1 win over Egypt, took to the streets to celebrate.
One could be forgiven for forgetting that another, rather less cosmopolitan world is out there, where families are being separated at the US border, or the Hungarian parliament criminalises helping asylum seekers. We should be grateful then to the organisers that they have jogged our memory by inviting none other than Sepp Blatter, once president of FIFA, currently banned from football activities by the organisation, to come and watch a couple of games. Better still, his host with the most, and with whom he has been dining, is Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s deputy prime minister. Previously head of the Sochi 2014 and World Cup 2018 organising committees, the Russian football federation, and a member of FIFA executive committee, he has resigned all his sporting positions since his central role in Russia’s state doping programme was made evident.
The real world has, of course, been present at the spectacle from the very start. The sudden withdrawal of rented space for FARE’s (Football Against Racism and Extremism) Diversity House in Saint Petersburg was a classic example of the ways in which Russia’s security services disrupt and undermine their opponents. Peter Tatchell’s one man demonstration in front of the Kremlin in support of LGBTQ rights in Russia was, for the long-standing activist, equally typical.
For the Russian government, these are just sideshows. Far more important was their decision to announce, over the opening days of the tournament, that they would be raising the country’s pension age (for men from 60 to 65, and for women from 55 to 63). In a country where a very considerable number of the poor households are reliant on this meagre but functioning wing of the Russian welfare system, this is hugely important. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has called for protests in 20 non-World Cup cities, where some modicum of freedom of assembly might pertain. Even if they are permitted, one wonders what fraction of the coverage accorded to football they will receive, and if they will be policed with the same kind of laxity that the craziness around football has been receiving.
For more of David Goldblatt’s insightful and incisive commentary on the world of football, listen to Game of Our Lives from Al Jazeera’s Jetty Studios. The podcast airs twice-a-week during the World Cup. Subscribe now!