The FIFA World Cup: A legacy tournament, but still a fan favourite?

The World Cup is not what Jules Rimet envisioned it as anymore: a picture of peace and togetherness. In the inflated club ecosystem, international tournaments have faded in importance too. For the fans, however, it is still a grand fiesta.
Illustration: Charbak Dipta

“At times football is a joy that hurts, and the music played to celebrate a victory that would make the dead dance sounds very close to the clamorous silence of the empty stadium, where night has fallen, and one of those defeated is still sitting, unable to move, alone in the vast sea of steps.” – Eduardo Galeano

Everyone remembers their firsts. The memory of my first taste of football is tangled up with shin-deep monsoon water, a drenched school uniform I refused to take off until half-time because I didn’t want to miss even a minute, and the thrill that shot through me when a gap-toothed, curly-haired young wizard kicked a ball towards goal that followed the laws of physics until it didn’t, suddenly changing direction and dipping over the head of the goalkeeper and into the net. Even as Ronaldinho Gaucho wheeled away, a big grin plastered on his face, and was instantly enveloped by ecstatic teammates, I felt time slow down, felt inexplicably rooted in place but simultaneously energised.

A week later, on the big screen at a hotel near the airport, my sister and I joined the celebrations with our father and uncle, as Brazil made up a little for their 1998 debacle. And then, just like that, it was over, and I felt hopelessly bereft of something I had only known for seven days. If I could go back in time, I would tell 12-year-old Anu that there would be plenty of the same over the next sixteen years. That same mix of headiness and despondency; the indelible moments of magic and the sharp memories of a pain that you merely get used to in time.

And yet, as I approach a fifth World Cup this summer, I’ve been asking myself whether the tournament means the same to me as it did back then. Or whether Arsenal rob me of my time, my love, and my loyalty, that I have none left to give to a tournament that is defined by patriotism in a way club or league football isn’t and hence I always feel a little on the outside of.

But what about the actual tournament? Has it changed? Is it fair to expect it to stay the same? For that, you’ll have to flip the pages back before flipping them ahead, at triple speed, to arrive at the present moment.

Once upon a time, there was a Frenchman from a small town with a big dream

If you Google Theuley-les-Lavancourt, the only English search result is a Wikipedia page with a single line – “Theuley is a commune in the Haute-Saone department in the region of Bourogne-Franche-Comte in eastern France.”

The information box on the far right helpfully informs us that the area of the commune is a mere 2.90 square miles and that, as of 2006, its population was 71, approximately 25 per square mile.

What this Wiki stub doesn’t reveal is the monument the town dedicated to its most famous son. It was inaugurated in 1998 by the French Minister of Sports, Marie-Georges Buffet. Again, the internet isn’t too helpful with photos. At last, I find success with a 2010 article on L’Est Republicain and I confess I’m a bit underwhelmed. It’s an ordinary, grassy penalty area with replica goal-posts arching over the entrance, and tucked away behind a glass window is a portrait of Monsieur Jules Rimet who is famous for many things, among them “never kicking a ball in anger.” What it doesn’t convey is the magnitude of his achievements, but maybe that’s also apt for a quiet man who never put himself before the larger design of his vision.

Jules Rimet was born in Theuley on October 14, 1873. He lived in the commune for only eleven years before his father, a grocer, moved the family to Paris in 1884.

La Belle Epoque

“The Beautiful Era” was already more than a decade in when the Rimets settled in Paris. Even now the period between 1871 and 1914 is considered to be one characterised by overall peace, prosperity and progress. But, as the young Jules must have realised, there were many who would live on the fringes of this glow and far out of reach, even within the capital. There was a considerable financially impoverished class who stayed that way during and for years after.

In 1897, after Jules Rimet had completed his law degree, he started Red Star, a sports club rare in not discriminating against its members’ class. On May 21, 1904, against the backdrop of a growing interest in football, Rimet helped in founding the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (International Federation of Association Football aka FIFA). That year, Red Star featured in the first division, with Rimet as their chairman. The seeds for the future were being sown, patiently awaiting fruition. The Frenchman would have to wait longer with the advent of the Great War, but by then, by some twisted logic, his long-cherished dream would be needed even more.

Annees Folles

The scars of the war slowly began to, if not heal then at least, repair; and many of the participating countries, once again, experienced a boom within industry, art, and culture. The Roaring Twenties. The Jazz Era. In Paris, they were called the “crazy years”. Even as art noveau evolved into art deco; even as Gertrude Stein held her famed salons at 27 Rue de Fleurus; even as the Rive Gauche and the Rive Droite exploded with creativity and collaboration between the likes of Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Miro, Dali, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway; even as Henry Miller dubbed Montparnasse “the navel of the world” – Jules Rimet was quietly moulding Red Star into a dominant force in French football and working to further his dream of a world united by the right way of playing sport.

Coup du Monde

In 1921, Jules Rimet succeeded Daniel Burley Woolfall as the third President of FIFA, the start of a record-breaking thirty-three-year presidency. In 1928, he finally proposed a tournament – a “World Cup” – and in 1929, after the vote was passed, FIFA sent out invitations to all its participating nations. Uruguay, among the other applicants, was an easy choice for the hosts. Earlier that year, their national football team had successfully defended their gold medal at the summer Olympics, the country, in the year of the proposed tournament, would celebrate the centenary of its first constitution. And, of course it helped that their football association offered to pay for all travel costs.

Pele with Vladimir Putin: An image you'll see a lot more of during this summer's World Cup in Russia.
Pele with Vladimir Putin: An image you’ll see a lot more of during this summer’s World Cup in Russia.

Even as Montevideo prepared to receive all its guests – the Estadio Centenario was built, specially designed by Juan Scasso, with the largest stadium capacity outside Britain – Rimet and his team were equally swamped with preparations. One of the most important assignments was the trophy. Aptly titled “Victory”, the one-foot high trophy sculpted by Frenchman Abel Lafleur was made with gold-plated sterling silver and lapis lazuli and featured Nike, the winged Greek goddess of victory, holding aloft an octagonal cup.

When SS Conte Verde set sail from Villefranche-sur-Mer, southeast of Nice, on June 21, 1930, the 3.8-kilogram Victory was comfortably housed in the suitcase of the FIFA President. Rimet was accompanied by four European team squads, picked up at different ports, as well as three designated European referees.

By the time Rimet retired as President in 1954, the British football associations had agreed to participate in the World Cup, and the tournament had taken on the format and appearance we are used to. The inventor of the Coup du Monde would live for only two short years after, but until the end he clung to his belief that “sport – and above all football – would be the means to teach the world’s masses to appreciate the Christian values of hard work, honesty, obedience to rules, comradeship, and fair play.

Modern-day gladiators

The human skin is constantly regenerating, so much that approximately every 27 days, every cell in it is completely new. Football, thank the gods, doesn’t possess these Flash tendencies.

But, the beautiful game now is vastly different to the one back in the times of Jules Rimet; in some ways equally unrecognisable, especially league football, with the English Premier League a front-runner in this glitzy global environment (a few months ago, Sky Sports secured the best package for Premier League TV rights in the UK worth a cool £3.57bn over three years). From being at the mercy of the BBC every May-end for the only broadcasted game all season (the FA Cup final), to grainy, monochromatic footage more frequently a bit later on, to being able to choose from more than eight different European leagues at the touch of a button all while sat in your own home with a couple of cold ones. Whether it’s the influx of scads of money, the improvements in fitness, training, skill, and speed, the advancements in sports science and kinesiology, athletes have never had it better. There’s also a flip-side to this with the increased pressure and expectations, but there’s no arguing that the reach and scope of the game has exploded (thank you, globalisation).

So, things are going great, right? Right? If we scrape away at the slick and the shiny, are we left with the comfort of Rimet’s substantial principles, or just an empty bauble that looks cheap in the daylight? The recent FIFA scandal with its charges of “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption might like to offer its own opinion, but maybe there can be something in between. Yes, the domestic leagues, especially in the continent and in the UK, have risen as a genuine competition for people’s attention and fandom on a more regular basis. Yes, many of the game’s principles may have transformed into more overt capitalistic ones. But the allure of the World Cup is unlike anything else.

A state of humanist grace

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “pathos” as an element in experience or in artistic representation evoking pity or compassion, or an emotion of sympathetic pity. But if you look at the Greek roots of the term, which was amalgamated into English only in the 16th century, pathos means to “experience, undergo, suffer” and not only that, but the Greeks believed that this experience of suffering and struggle to eventual victory was the way to attain fame, as a hero.

As spectators to a World Cup, we vicariously imbibe these narratives of struggle, of miracles, and bone-deep sadness. There’s drama, big personalities, underdogs. Where else can reputations be made or broken within a month? Where else are we allowed second, third, even fourth chances at redemption? We’re talking heightened pressure, intensity, extremes, potential for unexpected delirium, all compressed into a sense of spectacle that allows us to experience emotion in a way that is equally cathartic and unrealistic. Because, the moment we step outside the stadium, wisps of that experience are already being dissolved by our reality; it erodes it until we are left with only traces of the memory, however potent, and we yearn for more. A World Cup allows us, more than any domestic competition, the sense that we are part of something bigger than our individual lives – you only have to look to the celebrations in Egypt and Panama to realise how much just qualifying for the right to be there means to a country and its fans. This, belonging to a part of collective history, is a uniquely human experience and need, and the fact that it’s satisfied only once every four years makes it uniquely special.

“In today’s very fragmented media society, the World Cup is one of the last massive events where you know entire nations are watching at the same time, and that’s going to be the conversation around the water cooler in the morning.” (Raphael Honigstein)

The inaugural tournament, in 1930, was introduced to a world that had already known the Great War, and for Rimet, was more than simply an exhibition of talent. He viewed football as a tool that could unite the nations of the world. A sport that could bring international integration at a time when warfare among several countries was at its peak.

62 years after his death, despite vast advancements and longer life expectancy, we’re still searching for that elusive peace; still searching for mankind to consistently retain its communal humanity; still leagues away from Rimet’s prediction that, through football, the human race would one day achieve a state of humanist grace in which “men will be able to meet in confidence without hatred in their hearts and without an insult on their lips.”

But doesn’t that make the answer to my question simpler, easier? In an increasingly fragmented, turbulent world with near-constant shifts, we need the magic of the World Cup, especially now, as a uniting, life-affirming force, even if for just a few weeks.

I hand the baton back to Mr. Eduardo Galeano who quotes Colombian Pacho Marturana – football is a magical realm where anything can happen. Once the World Cup begins, everything else is forgotten; and maybe, just maybe, the foundation stones will be revealed to be exactly what Rimet set in place all those years ago, vision and values intact. And, I have to admit, deep down, I’m still as excited as the 12-year-old whose world changed because a man kicked a ball into a net.

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.