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Popes, peace, nationalism, and soccer

If Ross Douthat can this week give his Sunday column over to sports (specifically, the social and civic ramifications of basketball star Lebron James's return to the Cleveland Cavaliers), then it seems okay to post on that other big athletic event, the one that by its culmination today around 5 p.m. eastern will leave the nation of either Benedict (Germany) or Francis  (Argentina) as World Cup champion. You may have seen some of the lame graphics (like the one above) showing up in your Twitter or Facebook feeds, created and passed on by those eager to pit the current pope and his predecessor against each other in what soccer fans might call a "friendly." But by general accounts--and according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi--neither is likely to watch the game, much less with each other: The pope emeritus just isn't all that much of a fan, and, though Francis (as noted here and elsewhere) is, he doesn't watch all that much TV, "especially," Lombardi notes, "at that hour"--the game starts at about 9 p.m. in Italy. 
Lombardi adds that both men are also above "partisan passion," and in that sense they may reflect something columnist Simon Kuper discusses in the current issue of Harper's (paywalled). It's his belief, founded on having attended World Cup soccer tournaments since 1990, that the the sport now "exemplifies the ongoing globalization of daily life.... [T]he planet's biggest nationalist spectacle [has evolved] into a cosmopolitan party." Athletes from many nations play together on various elite professional teams, throughout Europe and elsewhere, so even those rivalries once fueled by nationalistic fervor (England vs. Germany, Argentina vs. England) are not so much, anymore. "[T]he World Cup minus the hate," Kuper declares. "It's harder to feel blind nationalism about the World Cup when the protagonists themselves don't," and this waning of World Cup nationalism is reflected, he says, by a "worldwide retreat from nationalism."
For centuries, he continues, Europe has averaged multiple nationalist-oriented invasions and conflicts per year, but even "amid the recent surge in revolutions and coups within states, the old great powers have resisted the urge to wrap themselves in the flag and intervene."
Few would mourn the passing of nationalism, and anyone who's tuned into a game or two can appreciate how the World Cup has become a "cosmopolitan party." But that has implications of its own: It costs a lot of money to travel to and around Brazil, where the tournament has been held; the people in attendance, as has been reported, are "overwhelmingly rich and white." Even the leading soccer players themselves, as Kuper notes, "have joined the 0.1. percent, the transnational elite more at home in first-class airports than in the streets of their own countries."
Globalization can look appealing when seen on TV, but the relative absence of borders has a way of further benefiting the elite, no matter where they're from, and not just in terms of attending mega-events on the world stage. In the United States, as James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker, there's a reason that today's business leaders show none of the pragmatic belief in supporting the material well-being of ordinary workers that their predecessors did a century ago, those who understood that "the robustness of capitalism as a whole depended on wide distribution of fruits of the system." 
If today’s corporate kvetchers are more concerned with the state of their egos than with the state of the nation, it’s in part because their own fortunes aren’t tied to those of the nation the way they once were. In the postwar years, American companies depended largely on American consumers. Globalization has changed that—foreign sales account for almost half the revenue of the S&P 500—as has the rise of financial services (where the most important clients are the wealthy and other corporations). The well-being of the American middle class just doesn’t matter as much to companies’ bottom lines. 
Back to Kuper: The doctrine of nationalism, "within soccer and without ... may be nearing the end of its run," replaced by a growing "transnationalism" as seen, for example, in the shared love of the vanquished Brazil team by Israelis and Palestinians. Today, however, those groups are reported to be "ready to continue and escalate their current conflict," in which, so far, more than 140 people in Gaza have been killed over six days of rocket fire. Though neither Benedict nor Francis will be watching the World Cup championship, the Vatican is backing a "pause for peace" during the game: "A moment, 30 seconds, a minute, to remember all those who are suffering in the wars around us,” suggests the Pontifical Council for Culture. I still plan to watch, and amid scenes of the transnational cosmopolitan party, pausing for a minute or so doesn't seem like a bad idea. 

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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By that logic, might as well ditch the Olympics as well. I am not a huge soccer fan but watched the last game as I happened to be in a restaurant and actually saw Germany score the winning goal. A good feat of athleticism for sure! And a nice shot. I realize that there is some pretty wild fantacism associated with the world cup but sport is sport and is good for national pride.

Everybody has different perspectives on sport depending on their standpoint. That is why I love the line in North Dallas Forty “Every time I say it's a game, you tell me it's a business. Every time I say it's a business, you tell me it's a game".

Great movie and instructive on the psychology of sport/business...Here is the scene...a classic in my book (very foul language though)

Why don't the Argentinian players sing their national anthem?  Just curious.

Lebron now has his rings. With that monkey off his back he can afford to remember his roots. Despite the PR slick the move imho deserves praise. Corporations forgetting their own country is a huge mistake. Because when the crisis come no one has their back. And Matthew 25 can be the final blow to their charade. Bill Gates seems to have redeemed himself coming from his baracuda company which has now felt the bite of other sharks. Refreshing that a lot of the nationalism has left the World Cup. But tell that to the Brazilians who need massive counseling. 

Glad that  powerful companies are not trumping their egos by intefering everywher. But 51 million people displaced is an indictment on everybody. Everybody. 

Thank God we have Francis who is keeping the focus where it should be.I don't mind if he rooted for Argentina. As long as he preaches equally to all on the how to eternal life. 

"'s business leaders show none of the pragmatic belief in supporting the material well-being of ordinary workers that their predecessors did a century ago, those who understood that "the robustness of capitalism as a whole depended on wide distribution of fruits of the system."

I have to take issue with James Surowiecki on that. "A century ago" is 1914, the year Henry Ford announced he would pay his workers $5 a day and was denounced as a "traitor to his class" (and other things). The following year, 1915, is the year Joe Hill faced a firing squad for offending the copper companies. A hundred years ago, capitalism may have beeb robust but its practitioners were hardly enlightened. Surowiecki is thinking of the period 1945-1965. Maybe.

As a Cubs fan I have no experience with major sports events, although I hear it is much more expensive than it used to be to buy tickets and, even harder, to find parking space for your corporate jet when you  go to a World Series, Superb Owl, Olympics or World Cup. Offsetting that, television brings these events in real time to masses of people who once had only the radio and, before that, the legendary sportswriters. So there is an upside. But offsetting the upside, the Olympics "Opening Ceremonies" and the Superb Owl half time shows have (in the interest of attracting women -- who know more about sports than the dummies who do it to attract them) [The Miami Marins have, or at least had, a "director of in-game entertainment" for people who paid too much for tickets and another $20 for parking and then discovered they were at a boring ol baseball game] are such revolting displays of absolute nothing, accompanied by or featuring cacophony, that sometimes I turn off the set and forget to turn it back on. So there is a downside to the upside.

Why don't the Argentinian players sing their national anthem?  Just curious.

They are Catholics. Everybody knows Catholics don't sing in public.


I really like "Superb Owl"!


 That's from Stephen Colbert. He noticed that the game so important it was denominated in Roman numerals (until they got to L; they go to Arabic this year) is copyrighted, trademarked and generally under the total control of NFL©™. So he came up with Superb Owl to talk about it without getting a cease and desist letter from the league.

Or, as George D. quoted, “Every time I say it's a game, you tell me it's a business. Every time I say it's a business, you tell me it's a game".


The Argentine team does sing their national anthem. Lionel Messi is the culprit. He left the country at a young age and may not feel that patriotic. But, of course, you could have googled it as i did. But Editors can't get out of assigning to others.....

I've said  for a while that the oldtime passion is now missing from international sporting events.  A little bit of comes out when a Costa Rica makes a run,but none of these games and none of the most recent Olympics have the feel of the Miracle on Ice or the Stolen Gold (1972 basketball). It was easy to get pumped up when you're palying to show "our way of life" is superior to the Godless Communists.  When you are playing Canada, not so much...

I hate to say it but I usually root against the US in the Olympics and the World Cup.  I'd rather see Belgium or Ghana beat the rich superpower.  

I wish there was a Ryder Cup- type golf tournament that would be the US vs. Central America or US vs. West Africa, so I could root against us there, too.  In the current format of US vs developed European countries, I hope they both lose.


The Argentine national anthem is quite long. It has a long musical introduction, a main corpse, a musical intermediate and a final hymm. For the purpose of sports competitions the authorities decided to play only the musical introduction, which players and public alike simply follow with a mumble...!  

Bill Mazzella: And Messi managed to convince the rest of his "pick up" team?

I wondered if the anthem had been written during the Pinochet regime and was simply unacceptable post-Pinochet. Curious how little politics emerged in the "sports discourse." I always thought sports was a substitute for war and for politics. Guess not.

ML: Mumbling the national anthem! Thanks for the info....

Augusto Pinochet was a Chilean general, not Argentine. The Argentine National Anthem dates from 1813,

Who told you that? Are you joking?

Ooops!   Thanks for the correction. Thinking of the Argentinian generals, but guess the anthem wasn't written under their regime either.

Know nothing about soccer, but found this statistical analysis of Messi fascinating. At 538 under the headline "Lionel Mess Is Impossible" (statistically speaking).


They are Catholics. Everybody knows Catholics don't sing in public.

You've obviously never hung out in a bar on St. Patrick's Day!

Catholics don't sing in CHURCH.

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