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The photograph that launched a torrent of criticism: German World Cup star Mesut Özil with Turkey’s President Erdoğan (© Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

International football tournaments, for the most part, disappoint. After the heightened anticipation and fanfare of the group matches, the fear of failure — or equally what Freud termed Erfolgsangst (“fear of success”) — can produce less than thrilling football in the knockout phase. Stalemates have over the years been commonplace, even in a World Cup final, as Italians will attest.

In Russia’s World Cup, however, a high tempo was set early and maintained for the duration of the tournament, even if the football at times may have flattered to deceive. The final adhered to sporting cliché by pitting “David” (Croatia) against “Goliath” (France), though, on this occasion, the underdog played the better football only to lose. France, a team for the 21st century with its multicultural makeup, having 17 of a 23-man squad the sons of first-generation immigrants, had given too little (in footballing terms) to gain so much. Even those, who Cassandra-like, had predicted an ill-tempered tournament, fraught with hooliganism, racism and bad sportsmanship, were proved wrong. The 2018 World Cup was an unmitigated sporting success. And yet, there was something far subtler at play rather than the football itself; something revelatory in terms of national identity and patriotism; something in the way these participating countries conducted themselves both on and off the pitch.

Fashioning and consolidating identity through sporting prowess is nothing new: it lies at the heart of the two greatest global spectacles. The symbolism of Greece holding the inaugural Olympics in the closing years of the 19th century allowed the country an entry into the modern world, while attempting to soothe domestic unrest. For diminutive Uruguay, hosting and winning the first World Cup in 1930 was not only a centenary celebration of the country’s first constitution but also sought to establish the country’s credentials on the world stage. Before the 1924 Olympics, Uruguay’s minister plenipotentiary to Berne, Enrique Buero, realised that football success had a far greater impact off the pitch: “A victory for the Uruguayan team . . . would have great repercussions in the sporting world, which nowadays links all the politicians and leaders of these old societies.” After Uruguay defeated Switzerland in the gold medal match, Montevideo’s El Día stated: “You are Uruguay . . . the symbol of that little dot, nearly invisible on the map . . . which has been getting larger, larger, larger.”

Uruguay’s sporting prowess, in spite of its small population, was an example that a nascent Croatia might follow. During the 1990s, Franjo Tudjman, the country’s first president, had sought to conflate ideas of nationhood and sport. “Football victories shape a nation’s identity as much as wars do,” stated Tudjman, believing Croatia’s athletes to be its best ambassadors. It was an idea not dissimilar to one held by the Marxist historian C.L.R. James, who believed sport could gain a people (in his case West Indians) “public entry into the comity of nations”.

These national heroes were especially useful in a crisis, employed by politicians as a patriotic lodestone. Unfortunately, sporting success alone could not allay all the country’s problems. By the time Croatia had started their 2018 World Cup campaign, their most influential and talented player, Luka Modrić, had been accused of perjury during the trial of Dinamo Zagreb’s quondam chief executive, Zdravko Mamić, who was convicted of transfer irregularities and corruption. Having been handed a six-and-a half-year prison sentence, Mamić fled to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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September 14th, 2018
10:09 AM
"the plight of Germany’s immigrant community, little seemed to have changed." What plight? Germany is rich and so are its immigrants. Those that want to integrate do so successfully.

September 1st, 2018
11:09 AM
The next World Cup will celebrate the Brotherhood and their sunni sides.

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