The Elusive Underdog Magic of the World Cup

When you root for the world’s less powerful, the tournament can read like a run-on sentence of tragedy, only loosely punctuated with joy.

Carlos Bacca playing in the Colombia vs. England World Cup match.
Carlos Bacca playing in the Colombia vs. England World Cup match. (Christian Hartmann / Reuters)

Neutrality may be a tenable position in geopolitics, but it’s tantamount to indifference when tuning into the World Cup. A soccer match can rarely be watched in earnest without one side winning you over. Croatia faces France in the World Cup final on Sunday, a game that (based on figures from the last tournament) could attract a global TV audience of more than one billion people, most of whom, of course, are neither Croatian nor French and therefore splendidly free to choose which team to support.

As a contest not just of teams but of nations, the World Cup gives the unaffiliated plenty to mull over in forging their 90-minute allegiances. There are sporting, aesthetic, and even moral distinctions to untangle. Perhaps you prefer the youth and verve of France to the guile and wily experience of this Croatian team. Maybe you feel duty-bound to back Croatia as the less-fancied contender, the smallest nation to reach a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950. On the other hand, you might weigh the fact that some of Croatia’s players sang a song earlier in the tournament that includes a fascist slogan from the 1940s, against the multicultural makeup of the French team, with 17 of 23 players either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Take another step back and you may find reasons to forgive if not absolve Croatia: What is a measure of young tribal nationalism compared to the unreconciled baggage of France’s imperial history?

On balance, I’m inclined to throw in my lot with Croatia, mostly because they have never won the World Cup and because their tenacious run through the length of the tournament has been extraordinary. But there’s also a more irrational, dogmatic thrust to my choice: As an Indian, I have never seen, and may never see, my country at the World Cup. Instead, I long for the success of others, particularly those nations that are underdogs both in the sport and on the global stage. I’ve always felt, too, that western European countries have won more than enough on and off the field.

I suppose I channel something of the “non-aligned” solidarity of an earlier era, when the poorer countries of the so-called “developing” world tried to build a tenuous bulwark against the superpowers. Yearning through screens and fiber-optic cables, I wish for the triumph of players I don’t always know from countries (mostly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) I’ve often never been to, for those moments when the World Cup reveals its true magic and tilts the globe upside down.

That magic can be elusive. During the 1994 World Cup, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano watched Bolivia (for whom qualifying for the tournament was “like reaching the moon”) take on “all-powerful” Germany. For a little while, the Bolivians rattled the Germans. “Bolivia went on the attack,” Galeano writes in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, one of the most splendid books on the sport. “They didn’t play equal against equal. No, they played as the big guys against the little. Germany, thrown off their stride, was in flight and Bolivia was in ecstasy.” But when star striker Marco Etcheverry was sent off for kicking out at a German player, Bolivia was doomed to defeat. For Galeano, the inevitability of its loss seemed an act of history, not just sport. “The Bolivians collapsed, wishing they had never sinned against the secret spell cast from the depths of centuries that obliges them to lose.”

Every World Cup extends the possibility of seeing that “secret spell”—the economic and political hierarchy of the world reflected in sport—undone. I pinched myself this June when both Mexico and South Korea managed to revenge Bolivia and beat the 2014 champions Germany. In principle, the tournament is an even playing field, where nations—irrespective of population, GDP, history, life expectancy, military budget, trade surplus, space program, film industry, and so on—are reduced to 11 men on the pitch. However illusory, however briefly, the weak can topple the strong, and the great chasms of the world seem to shrink. Senegal’s monumental 2002 victory, for instance, over incumbent champions (and former colonial master) France still makes me buzz.

In practice, western Europe continues to dominate. Buoyed by the globalization of soccer, it is the booming commercial center of the sport, home to the wealthiest and most powerful domestic leagues, the best resourced teams, the best infrastructure and coaching. For those of us who make a habit of investing our allegiance in underdogs, then, the World Cup often reads like an interminable, run-on sentence of tragedy, loosely punctuated with eruptions of joy. This year was no exception. Only one Asian or African team—Japan—survived the group phase. I mourned Mexico’s catastrophic implosion against Sweden, failed to will Iran over the line against Portugal, and lamented Nigeria’s inability to escape their group.

The nadir for me came during the rugged knockout game between Colombia and England. It condensed the cosmic and the individual in the shape of 31 year-old Carlos Bacca, playing in almost certainly his last World Cup, who stepped up to take the fourth penalty for Colombia during the decisive shootout. His journey was circuitous and unlikely: The son of a fisherman in the town of Puerto Colombia, Bacca grew up in considerable poverty. Most top footballers rise through professional club academies with access to great facilities and coaching. Bacca instead spent a hard-scrabble youth juggling his love for soccer with odd jobs. At the age of 20, when many footballers are already millionaires fully embarked on their careers, he was still selling fish and collecting tickets on buses to support his family. Talent and perseverance (and some strokes of fortune) would guide him to his top division debut in Colombia two years later, eventually leading up the ladder to clubs in Europe.

What soccer allowed Bacca is much like what the World Cup offers younger, poorer, less powerful nations: the possibility of competing with and besting the world’s traditional winners. The tournament, of course, merely sets the scene. The script careens in tragic directions. Bacca’s shot bounced off the goalkeeper, the fateful miss that would allow England to go on to win. Colombia was knocked out and a crestfallen Bacca plunged to the grass in Moscow.