I think this is going to be the worst World Cup of all time. I find it unavoidably so. All enjoyment of football over the next month will be mired by the evils of its host country, Qatar. The very publicly documented anti-LGBTQ agenda from the nation, its apathy towards workers building stadiums for the tournament, and many more human rights atrocities are to be swept under the rug as we embrace Qatar for hosting football’s greatest show, apparently. It cannot be ignored and nor should it. The game is slipping from the grasp of fans, even players and coaching staff, our passions and livelihoods being manipulated, ensuring that we cannot look away.
It feels like football has lost its humanity. Football is no longer about losing yourself to the artistry of sport but instead is a fight to turn part of your brain off every time you watch a Premier League game. We take what we can from football, we keep our fandom localised. I like how that squad is being built, I do not like the person financing them to do so. This competition provided some fun fixtures, I can’t stand the governing body putting them together. It is exhausting and soul-crushing, and I find myself barrelling towards a World Cup trying to remember why I even like this thing.
The nostalgia for seemingly perfect World Cups past intrudes on my mind. Maybe I was just younger and less aware of football as a geopolitical tool, but the game just felt more romantic back then. There was one nation at the centre of all of that, a representation of the purity of football, the artistry of play – Brazil.
Brazilian was something we would yearn to be on the playground. It didn’t feel like another country, just another place: it meant something more to us. The imagination and inventiveness of players like Ronaldinho and Kaká matched the childlike imagination we had where superhuman things were possible with a ball at your feet.
To be aged is to be cursed with knowledge of tactics and game-states and structure. Football never used to feel this clinical. There was magic on the field, there was showmanship and individuality. Football never felt this dark, there was escape. There were players who hypnotised you and made football into this warm blanket of escapism we wish it could still be. Looking for the showmen in modern football once again means visiting that famed South American footballing mecca. The latest iteration of the Brazil squad has the potential to reignite our worldwide passion for footballing flair.
For a while now, showmanship has been looked down upon as somehow ‘disrespectful’ to the opponent. This argument disregards the whole entire reason why we tune in to these matches – for a show. We do not gather thousands in an arena for open heart surgery. There isn’t feverish online discussion about who the GOAT coroner is. Football does not have to be serious business and few have kept the ember of that idea alive more than Neymar Jr.
The nucleus of Brazilian football has been the subject of punching down by pundits for years. Neymar understands that football is for the fans, though, and when he attempts a rainbow flick, it is not to humiliate a fellow professional but it is to fulfil the purpose of spending money to go see football, to be entertained. Neymar’s status as one of the best players on the planet has been muddied for years by the idea that showmanship equates to unseriousness, an invalid equation which has contributed to this lack of appreciation for greatness that doesn’t have a statistical counterpart.
Nowadays, whenever controversy about a player ‘showing off’ pops up, it’s a sign that someone gets it. Manchester United’s Antony has faced similar ridicule since moving to England over his signature move. The Antony spin looks a bit ridiculous and has no real effect on the defender but it is fun. This thing we watch is supposed to be fun, it is supposed to bring us joy. The highest level of this sport is headed to an increasingly dark place. Something that gets people off their feet for five seconds is worth the injection of life it brings.
This year, controversy surrounded Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr., more taming of the joy of a footballer. Known to dance in his celebrations, Vini was the subject of pea-brained racist vitriol from a Spanish pundit, an underlying reason why so many Brazilians get targeted for the expression of their talent brought to the surface. Vini responded with a statement, saying:
“The dancing is not mine alone. They belong to Ronaldinho, Neymar, Lucas Paqueta, Griezmann, Joao Felix, Matheus Cunha… Brazilian funk singers and samba dancers, Latin reggaeton singers, black Americans… They are dances to celebrate the cultural diversity of the world. Accept it! Respect it! Or freak out… In any case, I will not stop!”
Vinicius Jr.’s defiance in a sport which looks to hamper the expression of joy on the field felt like a call to arms and something of a manifesto for his nation’s approach to the tournament ahead. A spark needs to be relit. We need to be reminded that the pitch is a playground, instead of a classroom. If it needs to be temporarily transformed into a dancefloor for us to break from our grumpy habits, then so be it.
Entering Qatar feels like entering a post-apocalyptic Earth where humanity’s trash is the overwhelming population. We are in the ‘reaping what we sewed’ stage of capitalist sport. The greys and beiges of all the mistakes we made, all the control that slipped from our fingers, dominate. Is it foolish to hope that we can salvage this? That underneath the rubble there is a single dash of green? Some roots of a better game? Probably, but I’ll hold onto it until it is shattered before my eyes.
Maybe Brazil can save us. Maybe they can remind us that there is good in this game. Maybe they can shake the world from its despair and remind us that we can fight to make this sport something we actually like again. I want to see Brazil dancing its way to victory. The soul of this game is at stake.