A common sight at the end of a World Cup match is players from the losing team lying on the soccer field, wallowing in their anguish. In fact, there is so much crying in this quadrennial tournament that one wouldn’t think that such a scene was the aftermath of an unlucky game, but instead a mass funeral.
Almost every World Cup match ends in tears commensurate with those of great mourning.
Americans may not understand what all this fuss over soccer is about, since "futbol" takes a backseat to American football and basketball. In fact, the public didn’t even seem particularly irked that the United States failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup or that some ads — such as this Volkswagen one — make light of the United States’ absence in the 32-team competition.
To the rest of the world, however, soccer is still the most popular sport by an overwhelming margin. Consequently, the World Cup is a high stakes competition, one that billions of people tune in to every four years and with a monetary prize that grows with each tournament.
The World Cup may be popular for its symbolism. That is, despite star players scattering across the globe to play for foreign football clubs, they are always recalled to their home countries in time for the tournament. For example, only a single player on Portugal’s national squad plays for a domestic Portuguese team, while most others, like Cristiano Ronaldo, play for other European clubs when not training for the World Cup.
However, the strongest reason for the popularity of soccer worldwide may be the sport’s role in shaping national identities. In the cases of Argentina and Brazil, soccer has a long history of being a much-needed outlet and unifying factor during times of political and race-based turmoil. It was centrally important for these countries to develop distinct forms of soccer as a way to embrace their unique identities.
"Criollo" and Argentina’s version, "la nuestra," is a style of soccer whose political narrative spun it into a national pride. Criollo is the hybrid of European and Latin American soccer born on the streets of Latin America during the early 20th century — it emphasizes individualism and creativity, which is commonly observed in many Latin American players today. While la nuestra was at first criticized for diverging from the traditional European style of play, the Argentine government eventually touted it as their “national form” of soccer after discovering its effectiveness. The adoption of criollo and la nuestra united Argentina’s huge immigrant population and ended the country’s long running effort to emulate European culture, especially in sports.
In Brazil, the government used soccer as a tool to integrate African and mixed-race Brazilians, a demographic which had long been discriminated against since the country abolished slavery in 1888. In doing so, the government endorsed the playing style of Afro-Brazilians — who had strong presence in Brazilian soccer — as their national style of futbol. Despite the triviality of this reasoning, the acceptance of Afro-Brazilians is in part due to their success in the 1938 and 1958 World Cups.
Thus, the national importance of soccer in many countries — which is sometimes even politically induced — makes a loss on the field equivalent to a loss for the nation. In a recent post-match interview, South Korean winger and notorious crier Son Heung-min confessed that the loss to Mexico was especially painful because he felt that he “had let his country down.” When President Moon Jae-in entered the Rostov Arena locker room to congratulate the South Korean players, a teary-eyed Son was unable to face the president (although he went on to score two of the three World Cup goals by South Korea).
But the World Cup doesn’t always end in tears — the tournament often brings together countries who may have no relationship otherwise. Like South Korea and Mexico in their joint celebration of Korea’s 2-0 win against Germany, which sent Mexico to the Round of 16, many countries develop unlikely friendships by way of the World Cup.
The international popularity and historical significance of soccer might be hints that US should join the soccer craze soon. Although the US was not a part of this World Cup, Americans should still support the international teams of their heritage or choice on television. Fortunately, there will be a chance to redeem ourselves in 2022, during the next World Cup.
JENNIFER LEE is a College sophomore from Fairfax, Va. studying economics. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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