Originally published at Wait A Minute Now
16 June 2018

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How to Care about the World Cup if Football Isn't Your Thing

In my formative years, football was more appealing than the other sports I was forced into at school, but girls only got to play it once a year or so. And in extracurricular settings, I swiftly got bored of sexist remarks from the boys I played with, who saw football as their private domain and female players as intruders. I wasn't about to waste my time seeking their approval, and tuned out. As the world around me went on to collectively lose its shit - time and time again - over rich men kicking balls around, I found it hard to relate to the enthusiasm.

It was while I was living in Berlin during the 2010 (Men's) World Cup that football finally recaptured my attention. At first I resisted, but it was impossible to ignore. German flags sprouted all over the city, from buildings and cars. I felt uncomfortable about them initially - were they shorthand for a hostile, xenophobic nationalism? - but in my largely immigrant neighbourhood, I saw them twinned with Palestinian flags, Turkish flags, Ghanaian flags. I also discovered that the far right didn't care for the German national team because it was seen as multicultural: at least half its players came from immigrant backgrounds.

When Serbia beat Germany, I watched as cars honked their horns and people draped in Serbian flags danced in the street - and nobody seemed to mind. World Cup spectatorship, in Berlin, felt divorced from the aggression and territorialism that had long made me cautious around football fans. It was just joy, and a city coming together to share the experience. After Mesut Özil scored the winning goal in Germany v Ghana, I walked home to find a party on my street, complete with a saxophonist on a balcony. It was a win for Germany but also a win for Turkey, his grandparents' country, a connection shared by many of my neighbours.

I still couldn't be bothered learning what 'offside' meant, but the geopolitical aspects of international football got me doing research. I was fascinated by North Korea's presence in that year's World Cup, and learned about North Korean player Jong Tae-se and his quest to renounce his South Korean citizenship. Optimistic of victory, North Korean TV broadcast a live football match for the first time ever, not anticipating the country's 7-0 defeat by Portugal. There were serious concerns for the safety of the losing team and its coach.

Also significant was the World Cup's first time on African soil. When Ghana played Uruguay, I was drinking caipirinhas and watching it with several dozen others on a widescreen TV in the street in front of a Turkish café in Kreuzberg. The entire crowd was kancheong as fuck, hoping that Ghana would make it through to the semi-finals. As its players lined up for penalty kicks, viewers in Berlin cheered and clapped as if we could help them from afar. And when they were defeated by Uruguay, it was actually heartbreaking. In a tournament largely dominated by Europeans and Latin Americans, the last African team's loss represented more than just a game.

The final match was between Spain and the Netherlands. I was running late that evening and didn't have a plan, so I headed out of my flat and chanced upon a shisha bar that was screening the match. I'd never actually been into one before, and all the other customers were men; I felt out of place. But the server, a Syrian woman, came and sat next to me whenever she had time; she smoked cigarettes and chatted to me as we watched the game unfold. I was embarrassed by my poor German, but she didn't seem to mind. I felt relieved, and welcome.

It still bugs me that men's football receives a far greater amount of prestige, attention and money than women's football - I'm not even sold on gender segregation in sports, but in any case it would be nice to see all participants equally valued. And there are inequalities - far more harmful ones - beyond this. Migrant workers lose their lives to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Brutal authoritarians use top footballers for PR opportunities. Sex workers, homeless people and urban poor are displaced to give international visitors a sanitised impression. Exaggerated predictions about sex trafficking regularly accompany major sporting events, and are used to justify harmful interventions while experts are sidelined.

But I can talk about these things while also appreciating what the World Cup means to so many. For some it's a fun distraction, for others it's a lifelong passion. For many around the world, struggling with the manifold problems brought by borders and wars and capitalism, it's a time to come together based on shared identity or just common interest. And we get to pin our hopes on something that might not impact our lives directly, but could nonetheless give us one hell of a boost. I'll be cheering on Germany again this year, but I'll be cheering even louder for the underdogs.