Like many, I find myself fascinated by World Cup championship soccer every two years (thanks to the staggered schedules of the men’s and women’s tournaments, I can get my fix in half the time)—though, unlike many, I find myself spending an inordinate amount of my anticipatory time considering how World Cup activities intersect with issues related to nationalism. First and foremost, the spectacular staging of clashes between national teams always strikes me as an uncanny means of channeling the often ferocious energies of national pride—and whether this is a brilliant transnational strategy of using athletic ritual for cathartic purposes, or an insidious mechanism for sustaining nationalist pride and loathing, I honestly cannot say. And this greatest of global gaming venues is infectious, indeed compelling. As critical as I would like to be about all forms of nationalism, and however much I see such partisanship as a hindrance to human progress towards a higher, more cosmopolitan world, I invariably find myself rooting enthusiastically for my favorite team, who also just happen to be the ones who issue my passport (the USA), and also cheering on my second favorite team (Mexico) in all matches save for when they go head to head with my own. And just about any World Cup matchup offers excitement both as a game and as a study in international relations.
I am currently quite intrigued by one of the oddities of World Cup rules (which are administered by FIFA, that massive institution for passing laws upon play): although the rules are so complicated as to require frequent revisions such as this and this, the World Cup limits national teams to those who qualify as sufficiently connected to that particular nation (whether by birth or citizenship or residency), whereas coaches are mercenaries who can come from absolutely anywhere. It fascinates me that coaches are so clearly excepted from the dizzying history of deciding how to determine whether players should qualify for a national team—which only began to become seriously revised, as this fine Wikipedia article shows, when serious recruitment of players forced FIFA to act: coaches are not just on the sidelines, but stand fundamentally outside of this legal playing field.
This strange coincidence of a nationalist logic for player selection and a purely pragmatic, non-national market for capable coaches, is particularly apparent for the United States (and it seems to be going quite well, judging from the team’s winning performance in the CONCACAF Gold Cup qualifiers): the United States team is currently being coached by former German striker legend (and also successful coach) Jürgen Klinsmann.
I am not going to dwell on the most tantalizing, but clearly unknowable, and in fact unseemly question—whether Klinsmann, who will be coaching the USA against the German national team in the opening round, will in any way be torn between his professional and his national loyalties. Surely much ink will be spilled on this subject—but I am more intrigued by the way in which such a conflict is built into FIFA’s incorporation of both national and non-national principles into the construction of its teams. And, as you might imagine if you are readers of this blog or my other work, I am quite intrigued by how this curious fusion of nationally defined players and free-market selected coaches both works against the nationalist essence of World Cup activities, and hearkens back to pre-modern, pre-national modes of managing associations.
The World Cup team’s pairing of exceptional leaders with a team at least nominally defined by a uniform object of loyalty (here, the nation) reminds me of how often discontinuous seem the worlds of Western medieval (and modern) monarchs and their subjects. If Jacques Le Goff is right in stating that the fundamental unit of the Western medieval world was the “family” (Medieval Civilization, 280), then we can see why the elites who tended to provide rulers often seem utterly detached from their subjects. Whether it be the French-speaking kings of the Norman or Plantagenet dynasties who ruled over populations who were largely English-speaking, or the German-based Hanover House of the eighteenth century, or even today’s Windsor House that disguises the family name of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha that was changed in 1917 due to anti-German feelings generated by World War I, monarchs in Britain have often been, based on their familial qualifications, quite other to the majority of their subjects. In all these cases, of course, there are connections with significant swathes of the population, but these seem essentially irrelevant, since it is a familial connection alone, as attached to the quasi-sacred notion of sovereignty that sustains Western monarchies, that brings a subject to kingship. In some respects, the FIFA view that a general communal cohesion could coincide with a leadership role that is of an entirely other order seems to have much continuity with medieval societies that, clearly capable of self-awareness as communities, could be ruled by those who seemed to stand not just quantitatively, but essentially apart from them—in majesty, as it were.
As you can see, the World Cup always seems to me to offer both the prospect of exciting games and of ample material for pondering the history and meaning of national identity. And, of course, there’s always those Olympics…