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. 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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