At the World Cup, the Empire Strikes Back


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In July 1978, an obscure Nigerian literary magazine called Third World First published a posthumous essay from South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko. In it, Biko rejects the "lie" of black inferiority reinforced by 19th and 20th century colonialism. "To make the lie live even longer, blacks have to be denied any chance of accidentally proving their equality with white men," he notes.

For 70 years, the FIFA World Cup has helped dismantle the lie Biko spent his life fighting to disprove. The arrival of the 2010 tournament in his home country will be no different. As football is sport, parity is not guaranteed. But the quadrennial competition creates rare opportunities for once-colonized nations to challenge the great powers of the last century. No matter how bloody or complex the history, the World Cup gives the empire the chance to strike back.

Saturday's matchup between the United States and England, for instance, generated white-hot interest in both the old and new world. Americans on the ground in Rustenburg waved flags with the original Tea Party slogan, "Don't Tread on Me." Martin Longren of the British embassy in Washington sent the U.S. a biting email establishing the terms of a bilateral wager. "You should know that the Ambassador takes his steak like American soccer victories—somewhat rare," he cabled. One stateside commentator referred to the match as "1776 2.0."

Despite the agreeably Atlanticist final tally, citizens of both countries relished the 96-minute match all the more for its historic symmetries. And while the World Cup always produces oddball pairings (North Korea, meet Brazil!), the unique legacy of post-colonialism—reparations, whitewashing, the flow of migrants, outright war—creates the highest drama in all of sport.

This year's postcolonial matchups include the U.S. versus the UK, Portugal versus Brazil, and Spain versus almost everybody else. These showdowns are not as common as you might imagine, though in recent years Senegal has defeated France, Portugal has drubbed Angola, and England has drawn Nigeria in the tournament's group stage. (France and Algeria seem destined never to meet.)

Of course, the on-pitch retread of geopolitics is not limited to colonial ties—East and West Germany were strategically kept from sparring during the Cold War, and longstanding tensions in the Middle East compel Israel to play with European teams. But the most contentious rivalries have evolved from the European scramble for blood and treasure abroad. When Honduras meets Spain on Monday, it will be in the hope of recreating its joyous 1982 World Cup debut, when striker Hector Zelaya schooled the Spanish team on its home turf. It will also be a reckoning for the exploitative silver mining that gilded the Spanish crown. Likewise, former Spanish colonies Chile and Argentina are in it for the trophy, but fans will enjoy a rematch of the 19th century wars of independence that cost thousands of lives.

The beauty of the World Cup is that it promises not reparations, but a literally level playing field. Rather predictably, Angola fell to slave-trading Portugal in its first World Cup appearance. But a battle of sweat, grit and gentle jersey-tugging is preferable to a bloody civil war. And at times, the turnabout is delicious: The 2002 World Cup began with Senegal's dashing triumph over the defending champions and former rulers from France—a revival of the pride the insurgent Cameroon brought to the continent in 1990. But on Friday, Portugal will face likely defeat against the dominant Brazilian squad whose forbears spent nearly 400 years under Lisbon's thumb.

Replaying ugly histories wasn't always possible; the Cup began in 1930, when most of sub-Saharan Africa was beholden to European grand strategy, and much of South America and Asia was independent but desperately poor. Luckily, the British, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portugese exported Christianity, western dress and the humiliations of colonial hierarchy—as well as the beautiful game. Argentina's tradition of footballing excellence began among British expatriates to the Spanish colony. By the turn of the century, football clubs served as social supports for urban migrant workers in colonial Africa. Despite mid-century injustice--the nations of Africa were allotted only half a berth in the 1966 Cup—today, free nations from South Korea to the Democratic Republic of the Congo have national teams eager and able to gain the victor's view of history.

The football madness gripping much of the world outside the U.S. suggests the rate of these meetings will only increase over time. And there is a kind of irrational, wonderful collectivism to watching the tournament through this lens. The potential for retroactive justice enhances the already potent doses of history and nationalism swirling around pubs and living rooms around the globe. Teams from nations without a chance at the Cup can root for the next best thing: Namibians may boost Ghana over once-imperial Germany, Turks may cheer Argentina against regional rival Greece, and Indians in Kolkata will celebrate all month in a makeshift "little Brazil." It's why I'm rooting for an African team to go the distance; it's why no one is excited when the Swiss take the field.

Of course, sport often imitates life: the wealthier European teams, with advanced athletic infrastructure and training regimes—as well as smoother paths to qualification—have better chances of winning. But it's clear that the soccer world is becoming flatter. The white-bread qualifiers of the late 20th century—Ireland, Poland, Norway—have been replaced by non-Anglo competitors from Ivory Coast and Serbia. What's more, European teams are absorbing first and second generation immigrants and naturalized citizens fighting under once-antagonistic flags. Franklin Foer's 2004 book on soccer and geopolitics describes the logic of Nigerian footballers freezing on the pitch for Ukranian club teams: "They had ingenuity that could make a bland Eastern Bloc team look downright continental."

This blurring of ethnic and national identities in a modern Cup complicates Biko's simple calculus of black on white, third world versus first, us versus them. Today's French team is populated with players of Arab and African origin; star forward Franck Ribery is a Muslim convert reborn as Bilal Yusuf Mohammed. The German squad features Turkish starters, the Dutch squad finally has a black striker. Argentine Lionel Messi has lived in Spain for most of his life; Brazil's Kaka and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo play together—for Spain's Real Madrid. Nine of the U.S. players live and play in Britain—and seven more are first-generation Americans. Italy—perhaps by virtue of its lousy colonial record—is the least diverse of these squads. But even stiff-lipped England has embraced the new norm: An English commercial for football company Umbro features the polyethnic masses in contemporary Britain—an elderly man in dreadlocks, a young South Asian woman—clad in St. George's red, singing, lustily, "God Save the Queen."

Even Biko might have thrilled to that.