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Secretary of State Antony Blinken is perhaps the highest-ranking soccer fan in the United States government since Henry Kissinger. Last night, I spoke with him as he was flying to Qatar. Of course, he had many important meetings on his agenda. But he was also planning on attending the United States’ opening match in the World Cup, against Wales. I asked Blinken about the diplomatic value of soccer, his own relationship with the sport, and Qatar’s troubling treatment of migrant laborers.
Franklin Foer: As I was Googling around, I saw curiously little written about your soccer fandom, and I wanted to know if you had a theory about why this significant fact about yourself has remained so little known?
Antony Blinken: Well, I probably don’t advertise it. I’m a lifelong and ardent fan, but I was a very mediocre player, so maybe that’s why. But what I particularly love about the sport—and you’ve written about this more eloquently than anyone—and what I still find to be resonant in my job, is that no matter where you go in the world, you’ll find people who love this game. It’s a great connector.
Foer: Has it ever been a diplomatic tool for you?
Blinken: Yes, in the sense that I think there’ve been innumerable meetings with counterparts that happen to coincide with a major tournament—the Euros, the World Cup, you name it. So any time that happens, inevitably it’s something I’ll raise.
Foer: When did you become a fan?
Blinken: I moved to France when I was 9 years old and was there until I was 18. I had not played much soccer as a kid in New York, where I came from. And then, of course, you go to France and it’s all you do: recess, school leagues. I played in junior high school; I played on our high school team. We were notably mediocre, but I loved it.
Foer: And if I recall, you had a favorite French club?
Blinken: Well, I did, although it evolved. Like probably half the country, I loved Saint-Étienne. You’ll remember there was an extraordinary player, Michel Platini. He started at AS Nancy and then he went to Saint-Étienne. So everyone in the country was obsessed with the Greens, as they were called. But then I developed a real fandom for Paris Saint-Germain, for PSG, I guess because it was the local team at the time. Not very good. Not what it is today.
Foer: They were kind of a gritty, working-class club, right?
Blinken: Yes. Very different from what they are now. I actually wrote about this for the New York Times op-ed page after France last won the World Cup, my only foray into writing about soccer. My piece was about the number of players on the team who were from hardscrabble beginnings, and whether this was an opportunity, a wedge, for the French to think differently about the equivalent of their inner cities in the suburbs.
Foer: Do you have any recollection of the first World Cup that you watched closely?
Blinken: One I distinctly remember was ’78, when Argentina won. I was in my junior year of high school. I have this memory of going from house to house among all our friends. We would just rotate where we watched the games. And it was not consistent with doing a lot of homework.
Foer: And I assume, if you were a Platini fan, then you loved the French national team of the ’80s.
Blinken: Yes, very much so. He was a great player. Then, of course, Zinedine Zidane came along, and he was one of the greatest artists I’ve ever seen on the field. And now we’ve got Kylian Mbappé. So there’s something about watching players like Zidane or Mbappé, where there’s visceral excitement every time they touch the ball, because, all of a sudden, this magic happens. Of course, it doesn’t happen every time, but there’s the possibility of that magic happening. It’s really an incredible jolt.
Foer: Have you ever bonded with French President Emmanuel Macron about this?
Blinken: I actually bonded with my former French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the former foreign minister, over this. And, in fact, he gave me a wonderful gift, which was a signed PSG jersey. I thought about wearing it, but then I thought, What do you do? Do you put it in the laundry? Not a good idea. So it’ll probably get framed.
Foer: I’m assuming you’re well aware of the dark side of this World Cup, all of the terrible labor abuses that have been reported. Did any of those facts give you pause about attending this tournament or think twice about lending legitimacy to it?
Blinken: Look, first—to back up—we’ve said from the start that human rights is one of the driving principles of our foreign policy. We are engaged with the Qataris on human rights at all levels. In fact, we’ll be there this week for our strategic dialogue with Qatar, and [human rights] is one of the many important reasons that we’re holding the strategic dialogue. And they have made some progress in recent years on labor practices. We’ve seen them increase efforts to investigate, to prosecute, [and] to convict labor traffickers. We’ve seen them increase resources for this. They’ve got a specialized trafficking police unit. They’ve been bolstering that.
We have, as of last year, an agreement with them to combat trafficking and also on labor rights. And so we’re working with them jointly to try to help build the capacity, to raise awareness, to promote the rights of migrant workers in particular. And there’s a lot that goes into that, including technical, professional exchanges, best practices, et cetera. And we also saw them reopen something called the Humanitarian Care Home, which is there to protect and assist victims of human trafficking. So there is progress, but there’s equally a lot of work that remains to be done. And recently, for example, there are credible reports of abuses of foreign workers, but it’s why it’s important to actually engage them on these issues, to put a light on it. That’s what we’ve been doing.
Foer: When all is said and done, do you think that this World Cup will have done anything to advance the cause of human rights in Qatar?
Blinken: Look, the test will be when the lights move elsewhere. We’ll see what happens over the next month, but more important is what happens after the World Cup is over and whether the progress that we’ve seen is sustained and whether more progress is made on an ongoing basis to advance rights. That’s the test. And it’s too early to tell, but regardless, it will remain an important part of our conversations with the Qataris, well beyond the World Cup.
There’s one other personal thing.
Foer: Of course.
Blinken: I haven’t played recently, honestly, but I was playing until I was about 50. And there was a pickup game that took place in Washington. I don’t know if you ever played in it. Every Sunday for years, starting in the ’90s, there was a game between the staff at the National Security Council and the State Department and the British embassy. And then it attracted staff from other embassies in Washington. We played often on a field at the University of the District of Columbia. It’s adjacent to the relatively new Chinese embassy. As it was being built, the workers from China building it would stop to watch us play. And we used to joke that the cable going back to Beijing would note that the U.S. is not likely to be a threat in soccer anytime soon.
Foer: That’s hilarious. Any diplomatic incidents arise from those games?
Blinken: No. There would be the occasional heated argument, but we ended up playing where the teams were mixed. It was never the U.S. against the world.
Foer: I know Joe Biden says “Never bet against America,” but who will actually win this tournament?
Blinken: I can’t answer that question. I’m a diplomat.
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