Why this matters
While squads in Group B at this year's World Cup face difficult matchdays, they also face political entanglements amongst one another and domestically that will play out symbolically on the pitch.
The World Cup sure knows how to produce intriguing matchups. Some are just great football contests, rooted in old sporting rivalries like Argentina vs. Brazil, or Italy vs. Germany, but the draw often gives us pointed political and historical pairings. The opening game of the 2002 World Cup, France vs. Senegal, pitted the colonizer against the colonized - and the latter struck back, as Senegal defeated the reigning world champions.
The Qatar 2022 World Cup has served up intriguing contests of both kinds. Ghana vs. Uruguay is a replay of their bitterly contested quarterfinal at the 2010 World Cup. More political will be the game between Switzerland and Serbia, whose encounter at the 2018 World Cup proved hugely controversial. Two Swiss players of Kosovar Albanian descent – Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri – celebrated their goals by making the symbol of Albanian nationalism, the double-headed eagle. Kosovo, which many Serbs believe to be the birthplace of their nation and should therefore be part of a greater Serbia, is currently a majority Albanian nation. Serb nationalists and politicians were enraged. Serbian fans in the stadium wore T-shirts with pictures of Ratko Mladic, the “butcher of Bosnia.”
However, no group is quite as politically charged as Group B, which pits England, Iran, the United States, and Wales against each other. Indeed, there are so many political and historical links between teams that rather than the group of death (world football’s name for the toughest group to win), we have a group of politics. Wales, where nationalist and irredentist sentiments have been slowly rising, plays England, a country it considers, at best, its insufferable neighbor, and at worst its colonial overlord. England, assuming the mantle of the United Kingdom and its global political entanglements, plays Iran in the long shadow of the bitter nuclear conflict and sanctions regime. Similarly, England is proxy for the Crown in any game against its former colonies in the U.S., whose shocking 1-0 defeat of England at the first World Cup in 1950 is a distant reminder of English frailty.
The U.S.-vs.-Iran matchup is an excellent example of how entwined politics and sports can become. The two have already met in a men’s World Cup in this era, in France in 1998. The game was subject to considerable diplomatic maneuvering, with the Iranian authorities refusing to permit an opening team handshake in which the Iranians approached the Americans rather than vice versa. In the end, the geopolitical sting in the game was removed by a brilliant gesture organized by Mohsen Farafani, president of the Iranian Football Federation, who suggested that the squad walk out with white roses, symbol of peace in Iran, and hand them to the Americans.
In addition to the geopolitical overtones of these games, every nation in Group B is also experiencing notable political and social movements domestically. The history and tensions that these nations share with each other will be heightened by what these players and their fans are also experiencing back home. The football will be compelling on its own, but the context surrounding these matchdays will make them especially intriguing to watch.
In September, Iran’s religious police arrested a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, for not wearing the hijab. She later died in custody. The authorities said she had underlying medical conditions, but the people, and above all the women of Iran, thought otherwise. Weeks of massive street protests, confrontations with security forces and public burnings of hijabs have followed. And as with every other major uprising in the country, football, and above all the national team, has played a part.
The Iranian Football Federation – fearful of protest from the stands and of national team players’ support for the uprising getting global media coverage – tried to ban the public and the press from recent friendlies played in Vienna against Uruguay and Senegal. Crowds were allowed against Uruguay, and protests ensued. The team responded by wearing black, and Bayer Leverkusen star Sardar Azmoun wrote on Instagram, “At worst I’ll be dismissed from the national team. No problem. I’d sacrifice that for one hair on the heads of Iranian women. This story will not be deleted. They can do whatever they want. Shame on you for killing so easily; long live Iranian women.”
Football has been a flashpoint for Iran’s domestic social and political movements for nearly four decades. Initially banned after the Islamic Revolution, football was one of the very few issues on which the theocracy had to compromise with popular sentiment, allowing the game to be played beginning in the mid-1980s. Now clearly aligned with progressive causes, football became a space in which anti-regime sentiments could be expressed. In 1997, after Iran qualified for the World Cup, Tehran was flooded by hundreds of thousands of men and women who, in defiance of the religious police, danced together and removed their hijabs. Five thousand women marched on the Azadi stadium demanding to be allowed in to watch and celebrate the homecoming team. In 2009, huge nationwide protests known as the Green Movement challenged what were perceived to have been fixed presidential elections. While Tehran burned, many players on the national team played World Cup qualifying games with green armbands – and were punished for making political statements.
To this day, the theocracy remains adamant that women should not be present in stadiums to watch men’s sports, particularly football. Pressure has been applied by FIFA, a protest movement in the diaspora called Open Stadiums, and women’s persistent efforts to disguise themselves and get into the football stadium at considerable risk to their well-being, but they all have wrung only tiny concessions from authorities.
The Iranian authorities might have imagined that games against Anglo-Saxon powers would serve as stages for proud national defiance. But the national team's history and support for the protest movement suggests that, for most of the Iranian public, any success will be interpreted as a challenge to the regime.
World football is no longer a curiosity in the U.S. Major League Soccer is now more than quarter of a century old and filling its stadiums. Twenty-four million people watched the U.S. men’s national team get knocked out of the 2014 World Cup by Belgium in the round of 16, considerably more than watched the most recent NBA Finals or World Series. The traveling support was large and loud, with Americans once again buying more World Cup tickets than any other foreign nation. Yet at home, the game still lives in the shadow of the country’s big three sports — basketball, baseball, and American football. And though the USMNT captures an enormous audience of diverse and excited consumers, it is not seen as representative of the country in the same way as, say, the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys.
Why? Possibly because many Americans have many other national football affections. In the U.S., the most watched football on television is neither MLS nor even the English Premier League, but Liga MX. In international football, the U.S. hosts more supporters for El Tri - the national team of Mexico — than the USMNT. America’s large and growing Chicano population is a major presence in every walk of American life, except among supporters of the USMNT; as one fan of El Tri put it, “I will root for Michael Phelps or Gabby Douglas or other American athletes, but I unapologetically will never root for American soccer.” The USMNT not only hemorrhages support to Mexico, but many Americans from more recent migrant communities – like Arab Americans, West Africans, South Americans – draw a limit to their assimilation at national football preferences.
The men’s team, almost uniquely in world football, also suffers from a lack of success relative to the women’s team, who are the reigning world champions and the product of the largest and arguably most developed women’s football culture in the world. Though some of the immense support from the USWNT carries over to the USMNT, the men haven’t been able to capitalize on the same popular chemistry.
Soccer’s roots in minority communities and a women’s game that has become a hotbed for feminist activism has historically not endeared the sport to conservative Americans. They are unlikely to support the USMNT to any great extent. One can probably expect right-wing commentators to take the same line that nativists have been riffing on for the past century. During the 2014 World Cup, Ann Coulter, the political performance artiste, seethed, “A sport for girls and Third World peasants … I promise you no American whose great grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”
What kind of impact will the USMNT make this time around? Perhaps it could unite the currently separate stands of the American soccer nation – Hispanic people, women, and urban middle classes in football cities. Perhaps it will evoke more nativist contempt? Either way, the USMNT has become a powerful lens on a diverse but polarized nation that has a mighty potential to impact the international sporting landscape.
Wales had not qualified for the World Cup since 1958, when the team made the quarterfinals and was knocked out by eventual champion Brazil. More than 70 years later, the team is back, but the Wales they represent is very different. Throughout the 20th century, rugby union was considered the national game of Wales, sustained by a cross-class anglophone alliance of southern middle-class professionals and the working class of small industrial towns and coal mining villages – the same alliance that, in the form of the Welsh Labour party, was the dominant political force in the country. However, with the closure of nearly all heavy industry, that Wales has long since passed, and with it rugby union’s symbolic hegemony.
In the 21st century, interest in Welsh football has risen on the coattails of the immense popularity of the English Premier League, in which Welsh clubs Cardiff City and Swansea City have made occasional cameos. Football is now the most watched sport on Welsh television, and the most popular grassroots sport to play. Under a new regime at the Welsh Football Association, the national team has become steadily more competitive. Ranked as low as 117th in the world in the 2000s, Wales qualified for the 2016 Euros and went on a sensational run to the semifinals. The Welsh political and media classes and 30,000 traveling fans decamped to France while ecstatic crowds watched on big screens in public spaces at home.
Unlike rugby union, or previous Welsh football cultures, this version of the sporting nation has made space for a more contemporary post-industrial Wales, with more room for radical nationalism, the Welsh language, Wales’ new ethnic diversity, and the country’s burgeoning popular music. This Wales has a characteristically irreverent but pointed tone: a banner at Euro 2016 that read “Llewelyn 1258, Glyndwr, 1404, Ramsey 2016” referenced the princes that ruled the last two independent Welsh polities and an Arsenal midfielder. The squad was coached by Chris Coleman, who is of mixed heritage, and captained by Ashley Williams, who has a Caribbean and Welsh background along with teammates Hal Robson-Kanu and Jazz Richards.
The Welsh FA has taken to referring to themselves as Cymru, the Welsh name for Wales, while Aaron Ramsey gives interviews in Welsh to local media. Whereas once Welsh national team games required a loud recording of the national anthem to hide the poor Welsh singing of the crowd, it is now performed a cappella by fans and players. Both stadium PAs and the crowd now belt out Welsh language songs, and the FA has caught on.
Six years on from the Euros, Wales is going to the World Cup. Its footballing and cultural self confidence have grown in the meantime. The devolved Labour government proved adept and cautious managers of the COVID-19 pandemic, in contrast to the mayhem and inconsistency of their English Tory neighbors. Support for more power for the Welsh Senned as well as for independence is becoming more popular among people in Wales. Another extraordinary football performance won’t bring about secession, but it would be another symbolic moment in the new Welsh nation’s reinvention.
The England football team has a special place in the cultural politics of English nationalism. One of the very few English (rather than British) civic institutions that can command popular attention and appeal, it has become one of the most important cultural spaces in which Englishness is imagined. This was not always the case.
In 1966, England won the World Cup in front of crowds flying Union Jacks. They saw Britishness and Englishness as virtually and unproblematically synonymous. At Euro 1996, as calls for devolution for Wales and Scotland had grown, the English crowds flew almost exclusively St. George Crosses, and in “Football’s Coming Home” found an anthem that promised a more humble, post-imperial version of the nation.
In the quarter century since, the England team has revealed a protean, complex, and often divided nation. The crowds’ reputation for social disorder inside and outside the stadium has been largely shed, along with the presence of far-right groups. The last major trouble involved drunken battles with the police in Belgium at Euro 2000. At Euro 2016, English fans were sent running by organized Russian fight gangs.
Brexit, in which the English people outvoted the Scottish and Northern Irish, has framed the England team’s subsequent journey. Just two days after the vote to depart, England collapsed against Iceland in the quarterfinals of the Euros in 2016. Many in the crowd jubilantly sang “We’re all leaving Europe” as a shattered, diminished England departed the tournament.
The appointment of Gareth Southgate as coach and the team’s run to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup shifted the conversation around the team. Suddenly, the country loved them again. Southgate’s demeanor – focused, honest, polite and emotionally intelligent – stood in sharp contradiction to the increasingly toxic, hysteric tone of post-Brexit politics. The country also warmed to a new squad that was young and super diverse. The players were also incredibly human and shared their own stories of racist abuse, mental health struggles, and lost opportunities, holding a mirror for precisely the people who had voted against Brexit, the generation shouldering most of the costs of Britain’s turmoil.
The team reinforced its reputation as stand-ins for anti-Brexit English society at Euro 2020, which was played in 2021 after pandemic shutdowns in 2021. The squad agreed, as players had in the Premier League, to take a knee before every game to raise awareness against racial injustice. A part of the English crowd responded to this by booing players on the pitch and attacking them online for their “cultural marxism.” Several high-ranking politicians supported the booing fans. The players were unbowed and held their stances on social media and in the face of political pressure. In turn, they received huge support at subsequent games, where crowds began drowning out the boos with clapping.
The public theater of England’s relationship with race continued to the very last moment of the tournament, when three Black players - Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka - missed penalties for England in the shootout during the final against Italy. All three were then subject to online abuse, but all three were also showered with support from their colleagues and love from much of the public.
England goes to this World Cup on a terrible run of form. The country is reeling, still digesting the death of the Queen, the selection of the fifth Conservative Prime Minister in six years, the collapse of the pound, and intersecting energy and inflation crises that have threatened to leave a majority of the country in fuel poverty. If England were to perform poorly, it would surely be taken as a measure of the times, a bleak prospect of decline and self-harm. On the other hand, were England to perform as well as it did at the Euros, the world might see another vision of what the country could be.
The Qatar World Cup looks destined to be a debacle, from the scheduling for teams and athletes to the human rights abuses around workers at the event, to the logistics and after-effects of holding the event itself.
At the same time, soccer is changing like all sports – becoming more cross-pollenated between cultures and nations, maneuvering through a massive influx of cash, and modernizing on and off the pitch.
We offer a look at the state of world football through the lens of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.