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Politics on the Pitch

With just days left until the opening match, this year’s World Cup is shaping up to be one of the most political in recent memory. With that in mind, Peter and Muni decided to dedicate an episode to the dizzyingly complex political currents that underpin the world’s favorite pastime.

They’re joined—for the entirety of the episode—by two guests who live and work at this intersection of world soccer and world politics. On the pod this week are Roger Cohen, an international affairs and diplomacy columnist for the New York Times and lifelong fan of the beautiful game, and Nick Sprague, general counsel for Brazilian multinational Braskem, and chairman of love.fútbol, an international non-profit working to use soccer as a motor for social change.

The conversation starts with the elephant in the room, this year’s host. After several years of working to sow chaos in Western democracies and weaken the transatlantic alliance—and not without success—Russia will now play host to what is supposed to be the world’s single most unifying event.

Roger says that, even before a single match is played, the tournament is already imbued with geopolitical significance. Four of this Cup’s matches will be played in Kaliningrad, an extraterritorial enclave along the Baltic Sea, which he says is no coincidence.

“To have even made Kaliningrad one of the host cities is making a political point about Russia’s ability to influence European affairs,” he says. “It’s an assertion of Russian power and influence westward. But it’s a tough sell.”

In terms of influencing European affairs, the symbolism doesn’t at end the stadium’s location. Kaliningrad will also host a match between Belgium and Roger’s own team, England. The match will be played on June 28, which also happens to be the deadline for the UK to submit proposals to the EU on the contentious issues of the post-Brexit customs relationship and the border with Northern Ireland. June 28 will be London vs. Brussels, on and off the pitch.

While Roger at least has the English team to distract from the somber political mood in the UK, Peter has no such luck. Pietro’s native Italy has just formed an illiberal catastrophe of a government, and Gli Azzurri, after failing to qualify, won’t be around to ease the country’s tensions.

“Italy’s disastrous politics and disastrous football have merged together,” he laments. “It’s such a compelling disaster story as Italy’s racist and populist parties have come to power right as Italy will be absent from the World Cup.”

Muni, Altamar’s resident Colombian, takes the opportunity to gloat. Her team is headed to its fifth WC appearance ever, after reaching quarter-finals for the first time in Brazil in 2014. With stars we all know, like James and Falcao, and new prodigies, like Davinson Sánchez and Yerry Mina, Colombians are hopeful as they head to Russia.

That’s a good thing, Muni notes, because the country’s first game will come just two days after its most polarizing election in generations. For the first time in decades, Colombia has a true leftist candidate in the second round, and his solidly right-wing opponent certainly has no centrist pretensions. For millions of middle-of-the-road Colombians, the choices on June 17 look utterly unpalatable.

“Thank God Colombia’s first game and the general election aren’t on the same day,” she says, “or else they would have had to move the elections — nobody would have voted. That kind of summarizes the mood in Colombia. That’s the one unifying factor in our country, the camiseta amarilla.”

While Colombia has its hopes up, it’s hard to ignore the other notable absentee at this year’s tournament—the United States. But Nick, for whom US soccer has long been a passion, says this shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that American soccer will never have its breakthrough moment. Big changes have been in motion for decades now, and the US has the potential to become a true powerhouse in the years ahead.

“On the flip side of the supply side you have the demand side, and the truth is that the US is the best market for soccer today,” he says. “A lot has changed as far as love of the game, consumption of the game, and also as far as access. There are positive signs of how much the US has progressed.”

Still, to reach its true potential, Nick gives a few prescriptions for the promising but as-of-yet directionless US soccer industry. A strengthened academy infrastructure allowing talented players to seamlessly move into the professional ranks and real investment in youth scouting could make the MLS a world-class league, he says.

For a deeper dive—into FIFA’s political maladies, Qatar’s controversial 2022 World Cup, Brazil’s football dominance and political dysfunction, and more—tune in to the episode, which is available for streaming and download.

And last but not least, just for the record, here are our four participants’ predictions for this Cup’s final match:

Roger — France beating Spain

Peter — Spain beating Brazil*

Muni — Brazil beating Germany

Nick — Germany beating France

*Producer’s note: I second this prediction.

(Image via Wikimedia)


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