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The World in a World Cup

If soccer is a window into human nature, why is it so hard to apply its insights to everyday life?


I would never have watched the World Cup if it weren’t for my partner, a British national who grew up on Gary Lineker, the striker who towered over the English game in the 1980s and early 1990s. I find televised sports—all organized sports—boring. But after celebrating my birthday last weekend, my boyfriend voiced a tentative wish to watch France play Argentina, and I wanted to be with him. So we found ourselves in our pajamas in front of the TV at midnight, watching toy-sized men kick a tick-sized ball around.

The game had already aired that afternoon, and we’d both accidentally learned the final score. So there wasn’t even any suspense. For a few minutes, I thought: What could actually be a bigger waste of time than this?

But soon I realized the game was a substrate—a medium. At the science high school I attended, we did countless experiments with petri dishes. First, before we added the elements of the experiment, we’d fill the dish with agar, a clear, rubbery substance derived from seaweed. The agar was a kind of stage on which the experiment played out, where cells divided and bacteria and viruses interacted and changed each other. It was the medium through which they revealed their attributes, which they couldn’t have done in the air.

Soccer is a medium, too, in which we witness some human attributes and instincts that, curiously, we often deny in the real world. There are so many things in contemporary life we’re not really supposed to acknowledge, motivations and traits we aren’t supposed to have. Take patriotism: Mostly, it’s become a dirty word. Or failure. Or luck and chance: Even popular books warning us of the reality of chance in life exist, mainly, to teach us how nevertheless, by living our lives the right way, we can still overcome it and achieve our goals, no matter what they are.

Lionel Messi, in Saturday’s game, couldn’t achieve his goals. The BBC commentators—Gary Lineker was one—spoke of the game, as it went on, in terms that were so deeply, wonderfully, sometimes painfully human: It just wasn’t Argentina’s night. Time marches relentlessly onward; Messi is getting older, and a new hero possessing a perhaps superior style—Kylian Mbappe—is rising to take his place. It was, of course, the knockout round, so Messi and his team would get no second chance. Failure, in that game, was real, even if that failure may have been a consequence of fairly trifling circumstances: the mood of the team that particular evening, something someone said to someone else earlier that day, the ball bouncing one way and not another.

And the team. No matter Messi’s or Cristiano Ronaldo’s skills, they were entirely dependent on others—on the opportunities other people gave them, and on the way the opposing players maneuvered their own bodies.

So much of what passes for modern wisdom boils down to not letting yourself be affected too much, or in the wrong way, by others. I thought of a recent discussion that took place in an online group I’m part of: A friend had asked what he should do about his difficult brother. The group had advised him to neatly slice the brother—the problem—out of his life. I get the same advice, often, about my mother, with whom I have a complicated relationship. I’m awed, sometimes, by how even well-intentioned friends can casually recommend icing out my own mother, if she bothers me, like a physician freezing an unsightly wart off the body. But Messi couldn’t just freeze Mbappe or his own struggling teammates off the field. The commentators didn’t pretend such magic, such perfect control over our circumstances, was a possibility, or even desirable.

I thought, too, of another conversation I’d just had, about my disappointment over an article I’d poured my whole heart into that had been met with rejection from a publication. I was advised not to give up, not to be silly, not to let it affect me—as if to let the opinion of another person touch me would be the true failure. In the France-Argentina game, my partner and I watched the faces of players contorted with anguish; at their most desperate moments they turned to the heavens and prayed. My boyfriend explained that the pressure on the greatest players to maintain their reputations—the pressure, in moments, to make or break the whole game for themselves, their team, their fans, and their country—frequently led them to choke. It was easiest to put it, or even to pretend to put it, in God’s hands.

We fear messing up just when things matter the most. That fear itself changes and hamstrings us. We are completely interdependent: Our moods, our attitudes, the subtle messages we give out about what is possible and what we believe, profoundly influence those around us. We care deeply what others think—not just because we are vain, but because our actions in the world really matter.

Of course; how natural. How human. On the television, Gary Lineker and his commentators spoke of these human things with such simplicity.

Yet the same people who recognize all these things in soccer pretend not to understand—are bewildered by—these things when they manifest in the world outside the stadium. When great power doesn’t beget perfect behavior. When highly-regarded men self-destruct. When women who are treated harshly in a workplace don’t just lean in and get brassy, but become demoralized, like Messi. When immigrants from other countries impinge themselves on us. When we’re not the same people we were a year or five years or ten years earlier. When careers and wealth and dreams don’t just materialize for us because, in part, other people are taking them. When we turn out to depend, inextricably, on one another.

Kids know that games are, paradoxically, the realms in which we play-act who we really are. On the one hand, tournaments like the World Cup are often thought to draw out the kinds of energies we wouldn’t want active in the real world: intense nationalism, competitiveness, a kind of violence. Watching a game that I wouldn’t have watched without the influence of my companion, though—an experience that became itself the substrate for our desire to be with and love one another—I wondered if we shouldn’t let more of the understanding we have for what can happen on the soccer pitch into the rest of our lives.