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How to really watch the World Cup

A trip inside the memory palace of the beautiful game.

Public Viewing: Germany v Spain - 2010 FIFA World Cup
Spanish fans watch a televised World Cup game against rivals, Germany, in Pamplona, Spain on July 7, 2010.
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Every soccer game is a story that opens up onto an infinite number of other stories. The World Cup is the ultimate concatenation of these stories, the greatest work of literature the sport has to offer. World Cup teams are perhaps the most visible embodiment of nations — collectives whose actions on the pitch can seem, in the moment, to determine the fate of a country. The biographies of particular players intermingle with that of the team, channeling and condensing our most vexed histories, those of nations and their unending quest to define themselves.

Yet while many of us root for a particular nation in the World Cup, our fandom during the tournament is often an expression of a complex web of allegiances. “In both soccer and life,” Kanishk Tharoor recently wrote, “it is perfectly possible to be a proud representative of your nation while being helplessly, incurably global.” While the World Cup is a “place for nations to live out collective dreams and tragedies,” it also turns national identities into “signs of longing for a wider world.”

Like US fans this year, most people across the globe will watch the World Cup without having the option to root for their national team. And while many feel regret and despondence, this represents an opportunity — a kind of freedom to decide what you want soccer to be, and to mean, in the world.

Ask someone whom they’ll root for in the World Cup and you’ll likely end up hearing a story. It might be a simple one, about where the fan was born or now lives. But often it will open into much more, a recounting of when they saw their team play for the first time, of parents or friends who drew them in, of the emotions they felt when a player scored — or missed — at a crucial moment, of how and where they celebrated a victory or mourned a defeat. And, often enough, your story will intersect with theirs, and you’ll remember the same game and tell them where you were when you saw it, and what you saw and felt.

Soccer has become a shared, global memory palace, like the imaginary buildings that ancient philosophers and medieval theologians built as a way of remembering arguments and principles. Except that it is a place full of movement, of collective action between players, between crowds and team, the ball always moving back and forth, back and forth.

Our memories are individual, often linked to the powerful emotions sport inspires in us. But it is because they are also shared, connecting us to others in remembrance, that they gain power and meaning. What connects all who watch the World Cup, whoever they are rooting for, is that we’re willing to throw ourselves into the big story, to try to make meaning out of 22 players running up and down a pitch for a few weeks every four years.

Why, wonders the Mexican journalist Juan Villoro, has there never been a great soccer novel? Because every soccer game is already a novel: “its own epic, its own tragedy, its own comedy,” all condensed into 90 minutes.

Novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard has imagined a work of fiction that would “chart all the incidents, all the moves, all the names” in a game, but also tell “their stories before the game, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends, what happened after the game, the following years, the career that finished, life in a satellite town outside some Colombian or Iranian city.”

In a sense, as fans we are always writing and rewriting the story of the games we have seen, the ones we are watching, and the ones we hope someday to see.

Take Mohamed Salah. A year ago, he was a relatively well-known professional soccer player for the Italian team Roma, beloved in his home country of Egypt but by no means a household name. Then he transferred to Liverpool, where over the course of the season he scored 44 goals and became not just beloved by the team’s hard-nosed fans but recognized as a global superstar. He is a devout Muslim who prays before games and after goals; Liverpool supporters wrote a new chant for Salah declaring that they want to be Muslims and sit in a mosque, just like him.

His style in front of the goal is joyous and ever-changing. The season at Liverpool, he has scored almost every kind of goal you can imagine, some from near the edge of the box, others flying through the air and chipping in the ball. What characterizes them all, though, is a kind of eerie confidence and calm he has in front of the goal. It feels like he’s shifting time around him, Matrix-like, so he can pause to send the perfect strike into the net. But there’s more to his story.

Last October, he sealed his role as a national hero in Egypt when he secured the country a place in the World Cup. Soccer is hugely important in Egypt: The country has won more African Cups than any other on the continent, but they have only made it to the World Cup twice before, the last time in 1990. In the qualifying phase, Salah scored two goals in the decisive game against the Congo, the second of them a penalty during the waning minutes of the game. Egyptian fans in the stadium were in tears, the commentator prayed to — and then praised — god, and the streets of Cairo erupted in celebration.

In Egypt and across the Middle East and beyond, Salah has now become a symbol, his road from a small village to the heights of sporting glory an inspiration, the humble and slightly dazed way in which he has greeted his fame endearing. In the recent presidential election in Egypt, an estimated 1 million voters wrote in his name on the ballot as a way of protesting against the regime.

Egyptian fans will watch their country, and Salah, play with a particular depth of feeling. But the game invites us all, for a time, to be Egyptians — to stand for something ineffable, even utopian.

This is just one of the stories that will unfold during the World Cup. I could tell you about some of the other players — Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku or France’s Paul Pogba — whose stories I have come to learn and adopted as my own. What makes tournament work so powerfully as a global story is its constrained narrative structure, in which an opening profusion of games — for two weeks, usually three a day, sometimes more — will lead the players and teams to an ever-narrowing set of possibilities.

Each team, in fact, plays strikingly few games; the two who make it to the final will play just seven. So there is concentrated meaning of what happens in any given 90 minutes. This amplifies each move, each ball, and its potential to change the course of history.

A soccer game is like any other work of art. You can encounter and absorb it without knowing anything beforehand, but it also deepens in meaning once you know what surrounds it and has come before, once you allow others to share with you how they see it. Each team enters a game haunted by the stories of what has come before, of victories or defeats by prior generations, sometimes even the wider political meaning of a given encounter.

To watch a game with others is to hear the stories they see hovering over the pitch. It is to effuse together about a particular move, to shout vociferously at the referee who, once again, has made a terribly unfair call, and, of course, to jump and scream when a goal is scored.

Those moments are all the more precious because they are fleeting: In the end, with near certainty, your team’s World Cup will end in a loss, perhaps a tragic and wounding one. Going in, we don’t know what will unfold, but we do know that we will emerge with a new trove of stories, and — as with an encounter with other great art — a little bit changed by what we have seen.

In 1990, while the men’s World Cup was being played in Italy, a devastating earthquake struck Iran, leaving 30,000 dead. Director Abbas Kiarostami journeyed into the disaster zone, filming as he searched for the actors that had appeared in his last movie. He comes upon a boy who starts talking about the World Cup — about how Brazil was playing Scotland, and Scotland scored a goal, and only then about how during the game, as they were watching, his house collapsed.

Later in his film, Life and Nothing More, Kiarostami encounters a man who is setting up an antenna above a refugee camp so that the community can watch the game. He asks him whether, in a time of such disaster and mourning, it is appropriate to watch the World Cup. The man explains that he, too, had lost several family members. “But what can you do?” he asks with a smile that is full of sadness, but also harboring the anticipation of the game to come. “The World Cup only comes every four years, and an earthquake every 40. Life goes on.”

We can ask the same question in 2018, with Vladimir Putin using the tournament to his own political ends, with the tournament taking place in Russia only as a result of FIFA’s monumental corruption, and with the world of soccer often reflecting the ugliness that stretches all around us. Yet if people are drawn to the World Cup, again and again, as they have been since the first tournament in 1930, it is precisely because it brings us unexpected stories, and as-yet-unwritten victories for us to talk about and dream about together.

Laurent Dubois is the director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University and the author of The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer. Find him on Twitter @Soccerpolitics.

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