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When My Father Cried for Paraguay

The always brilliant Rick Hertzberg has been debating our very own Jon Chait about the perils of soccer nationalism and tribalism. I don’t have much to add, aside from some personal anecdote.

The other week, my father and I watched Paraguay and Japan play in the first knockout round. It was hardly a match that anyone outside of those two countries will remember, except perhaps for Paraguay enthusiasts like Sasha. But the match droned on, nil-nil, all the way to penalty kicks. When Japan shanked two attempts, Paraguay advanced to its first ever quarterfinals.

Now, I can attest that my father has no particular brief for Paraguay. Sure, he can probably recite the clichés about the country that accompany every American telecast of a Paraguay match: “landlocked and impoverished.” When I was in high school, we even visited the Iguazu Falls in Brazil and crossed over the border to Paraguay for an hour to get a different view. In the twenty years following our stopover in Paraguay, I hadn’t heard him mention the country once.

After his team’s victory, Paraguay’s coach Gerardo Martino buried his face on the shoulder of his comrade and heaved. Beneath his glasses, his eyes were like Iguazu itself. As I looked over to my father across the couch, he had joined the tear party. He wiped his eyes and began laughing at himself for emoting over the triumph of…Paraguay.

During some matches, I suppose, we are genuinely neutral, devoid of any rooting interest. But I haven’t experienced too many of those. Every game I watch, I tend to favor a team, if only marginally. And in the later stages of the World Cup, after the United States is eliminated, my identification with other countries grows more intense. As a Barca supporter, I’m bound to Spain. But I’ve also found myself getting worked up over the fates of countries with which I have no personal history or rational reason for supporting.

Of course, these proxy relationships can take an ugly turn —not with my family, mind you, but elsewhere. Every four years, there’s a story of Bangladeshis erupting over the World Cup, often ugliness between supporters of Brazil and Argentina. (This year college students rampaged when their university failed to cancel classes during the tournament. They clashed with annoying goody-goodies who insisted on taking exams as planned.) That probably doesn’t qualify as liberal behavior.

But the choosing of sides is an innately human impulse. The world wouldn’t keep intensely watching until the end of this tournament if it didn’t feel some stake in its outcome. On balance, that seems a very good thing. There’s nothing more insular than supporting your own country—you have a strong sense that, for better or worse, your players are playing on your own behalf.  The martial metaphors are true: Most people do think of their national teams as non-violent (except, perhaps in Mark Van Bommel's case) armies. The cutaway shots during the playing of national anthems are almost painful to watch, the emotions on display are so personal. Yet, somehow, during World Cups, we feel permitted to enter each others' closed circles. For a moment, maybe only ninety minutes, we become chauvinistic on behalf of someone else's chauvinism. Nationalism is internationalized. That's not quite cosmopolitanism, but it is its own salutary form of empathy.