For most of the time that we’ve heard of it, soccer’s World Cup has been, in name and reality, a misnomer. It wasn’t about the world, per se. It was about Europe — and its colonialization of the world.
And Morocco, the Atlas Lions, did so off the boot of Achraf Hakimi — born to Moroccan parents in Spain and reared in Spain, who historically would have been expected to play for Spain — on a third penalty kick after a scoreless draw. Spain missed all of its tries.
Morocco freed itself from Spanish rule in 1956 after 44 years. On Tuesday, it represented a new liberation movement in global sport.
For as Michael Murphy, a Queen’s University political scientist reminded in a recent paper on soccer in Africa, the game was “introduced into the African colonies by the Western capitalist colonial powers in an effort to make manageable the populations of the newly conquered territories. To make manageable the populations meant to introduce soccer ‘with the purpose of satisfying colonial ideas of and needs for order and discipline among the dominated population.’ ”
There remained plenty of remnants of European settler colonialism in this World Cup, Morocco’s breakthrough notwithstanding. The tournament continued to spotlight European soccer’s harvesting of the best talent from beyond its shores to feed its rapacious appetite for the game within its borders. You were hard-pressed to spy a European side without a progeny of an African country it once occupied. I couldn’t help but feel the pain for Breel Embolo when he gestured in apology after scoring for Switzerland against his birth country Cameroon.
“Therein lies the rub,” emailed Grant Farred, a Cornell professor of Africana Studies and English who has penned his love of soccer: “The ghosts of globalization, of forced migration, the refugee, the aspirant postcolonial type seeking greener, that is, European, pastures, whose sons are now wearing the colors of what was once an imperial flag. The contradictions abound.
“Why is it,” Farred asked, “that the Cameroonian lays to waste Cameroon?”
After all, it is rare that a European pummels his European birthplace, though it has happened. The great German striker Miroslav Klose was born in Poland.
But if ever a World Cup hinted that the tide was turning a bit, that the playing pitch was being evened, it is this one. And how apropos, given it is being allowed to grace the Middle East for the first time. After being in Africa for the first time in 2010, in a liberated South Africa. After being in Asia for the first time in 2002, in Japan and South Korea.
The World Cup, indeed, should play upon the world stage and not just one continent or two. And it should be a celebration of the world’s athletes, not just those in Europe. This World Cup got closer to that ideal.
To be sure, when this World Cup entered its knockout round of 16 on Saturday, all six populated continents were represented for the first time. That included two teams from Africa — Senegal and Morocco — and two teams from Asia, Japan and South Korea, where British sailors are thought to have planted the game in the late 19th century.
Australia also advanced to the round of 16. Only five teams from outside of Europe and South America made the quarterfinals before Morocco. And no team from outside Europe or South America has played in a World Cup final. Last weekend kicked off the best chance for that breakthrough to be made, which made this World Cup the most diverse and inclusive of all.
There is no doubt that the rest of the world’s rising success in the world’s most popular sport is due to more of that talent long gathered by Europe from points beyond its border playing now for its birthplace, or origin, rather than for a European colonist from which that birthplace may have liberated itself, often in brutal struggles. For example, Ghana’s Thomas Partey is said to have a Spanish passport but has continued to represent his birth country, the first African nation to free itself from British rule, in the World Cup. And more frequently now, foreign-born players of African descent, such as Spanish-born Inaki Williams, are choosing to play for their ancestral homes. Williams dressed for Ghana, too.
For many, it seems like a newfound sense of nationalism. Williams’s mother, as he has told the story, was pregnant with him when she fled Ghana, crossing the Sahara barefoot all the way to Spain. His younger brother Nico, however, who was born in Pamplona, starred for the Spanish side that Morocco’s Spanish-born players helped eliminate Tuesday.
In soccer, the chickens are finally coming home to roost.
World Cup in Qatar
USMNT: The U.S. men’s national team fell to the Netherlands, 3-1, on Saturday in the opening match of the round of 16. The United States has not won a World Cup knockout match since 2002, when it beat regional rival Mexico in the round of 16 in South Korea.
Knock out round schedule: A World Cup group stage filled with shocking upsets and dramatic turnarounds will now give way to a knockout round that promises more surprises.
Today’s WorldView: The 2022 World Cup has faced a cascade of controversies since Qatar won the right to host it more than a decade ago. Sometimes drowned out in the din: Concern over the tournament’s climate impact. Perhaps anticipating blowback, Qatar laid out an ambitious pledge: to hold the first carbon-neutral World Cup.