On July 15th half of the world tuned into the most watched live event on television worldwide.
“As the pinnacle of the only truly global game, played in every country by every race and religion, it is one of the few phenomena as universal as the United Nations,” wrote Kofi Annan.
With 211 teams versus 193 in the United Nations, I would say that the FIFA World Cup embodies globalization in an inspiring way. And as the first World Cup held in Eastern Europe with a total of 64 matches played in 12 venues across 11 cities, by all accounts, the 2018 tournament was a great success.
Among the overwhelming messages of congratulations, which poured into the media when the French team won its second World Cup title on July 15th, Trevor Noah, the US Daily Show host triggered a fully-fledged controversy when he jokingly asked: Did Africa just win the World Cup?
While the joke struck a nerve, it also helped us realize that ultimately the FIFA World Cup stands out as a festival of unity, sportsmanship and humanity.
Although the topic of multiculturalism is a complex issue, what Trevor Noah and others have difficulty understanding is that despite their African origins, the victorious soccer players themselves don’t want to be seen as anything else but French.
For the French, the idea is not to suppress diversity. On the contrary, the point is to celebrate a common heritage, based on a republican ideal and a code of life that aim to unite all French people, as opposed to highlighting what makes them different from one another.
The argument which followed between the South African comedian and the French Ambassador to the US revealed just how difficult it is to step outside one’s own cultural framework and understand the ways that other cultures and nations conceive and reinforce identity. As Noah eloquently put it, “We live in a world where nuance is a thing that is in short supply.”
In the end, Barack Obama managed to close the debate by saying “Just ask the French Football team! Not all of them look like Gauls, but they are French. They are French.”
Despite the intense debate over the cultural identity of the French players, the World Cup is one of those rare events in which politics is temporarily transcended and where, for the most part, the teams leave their historical feuds in the locker room.
In a tournament, where some of the players display their usual theatrical performance to influence the referee, it was very refreshing to see Romelu Lukaku (the Belgium player) wave his hand at the referee to say, “No penalty!” during the game against Tunisia. His gesture earned him lots of respect.
The Japanese team also earned everyone’s admiration when, in addition to their amazing football performance, they hung around on the field after their last game to honor their fans in the stadium. Fans, who cheered for them as they bowed their heads, were clearly emotional. Then, even as the stadium cleared out, the Japanese fans stayed behind to pick up trash.
The Japanese fans weren’t the only ones who left things spotless. After the match, a photo appeared on social media, which showed that the Japanese team cleaned their locker room before they departed. They also left a note behind on the table. It was written in Russian, and apparently read “Spasibo” or “Thank you.” It was a heartwarming show of respect for their host country and a demonstration of true sportsmanship.
“But the biggest benefit of the World Cup is that it is an event in which we actually see goals being scored, not just the goals that each team scores, but the most important goal of all,– being there, being part of the family of nations and peoples, celebrating our common humanity.” Kofi Annan
When we speak about our common humanity, we are reminded that we are all human beings with equal and inalienable rights. Soccer is a democratic sport which allows all players, regardless of the color of their skin to be equal on the field and to show the substance of their character.
While the topic of cultural origins is becoming increasingly sensitive, the unified and diverse 2018 French winning team represents the changes, which are taking place in France today. Triumphant and beloved, the French soccer players influence the way we look at modern society. They are paving the way for social progress as well as blazing the trail for a better understanding of our common humanity.
The thrilling 2018 FIFA World Cup managed to captivate millions of viewers for a month and will be remembered as perhaps the most magnificent Festival of Unity, Sportsmanship, and Humanity.