The beautiful game is back: Nations reclaim their names

 Supporters of Iran celebrate while watching the match between Iran and Morocco in a fan zone in Moscow, Russia on June 15, 2018 [Gleb Garanich/Reuters]
Supporters of Iran celebrate while watching the match between Iran and Morocco in a fan zone in Moscow, Russia on June 15, 2018 [Gleb Garanich/Reuters]

When you hear the words “Saudi Arabia” do you think of its ruling family, its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, its bombing Yemen into epidemic cholera – or do you think of 32 million human beings as full of fears and aspirations as any other nation, wishing they could drive, men and women, out of any claim the ruling clan has over them?

What about Iran? When you hear the word “Iran” do you think of a recalcitrant Shia theocracy spreading itself too thin in the world around it or do you think of almost 80 million human beings who call themselves “Iranians” and trace their culture and civilisation to prehistory and wish to lend that history to a peaceful coexistence with their neighbours?

Every four years, when the World Cup kicks off, we have a chance to think of nations, their ideals, their aspirations, their peoplehood rather than the criminal atrocities that their ruling states commit in their names.

And this year is no different. As the World Cup started in Russia earlier this month, nations reclaimed the names of their homeland, wresting them from the organised violence of the states that rule over them.

The nuisance of the ruling regimes

What’s the use of such speculative observations, you may object, and who has the heart or the presence of the mind when the unsurpassed savagery of Trump administration is kidnapping children from their parents at US borders to watch or care how poor Moroccan Aziz Bouhaddouz’s dramatic own goal in added time secured a second ever Iranian World Cup win?

But, as you well know, if you have been following this column, there is more to football than meets the eye.

In the World Cup, our entire humanity gathers for a reassessment of who and what we are. Every time two national teams meet, we don’t think what we have become, but what could have been. That nations have a priority of claim on their names over their states becomes particularly pronounced at that moment.

This, of course, does not mean that the states do not rush to embrace and own the global spectacle. Russian President Vladimir Putin sat there right next to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the opening game of Russia vs Saudi Arabia. The Saudis lost 5-0. But that score was not a credit to Putin or a loss to bin Salman.

Yet, in both countries, there have been efforts to appropriate football as a state affair. In Russia, just before the opening match, parliamentarians proposed a fine for anyone who dared “insult” the Russian national team. In Saudi Arabia, right after the match, Turki al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi Arabia’s sports authority, rushed to personally apologise to the crown prince for the loss.

Even worse and more vulgar was the Islamic Republic insistence on an “IR” to be placed right in front of “Iran” in all official FIFA timetables and announcements.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.