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Here’s why I can’t watch soccer like a normal person

Here’s why I can’t watch soccer like a normal person
Courtesy of Midjourney

Politics and history have a way of intruding on – even ruining – everything for me, and these days, it’s soccer’s turn.

Right now, most of the Western Hemisphere is engrossed in two major soccer tournaments. In Europe, it’s the Euros, where the Old Countries are battling it out. In the Americas, it’s the Copa América, where the New Ones are.

All told, the countries participating in the two tournaments are home to more than a billion people. So, it’s a big deal – basically two half-filled World Cups at once.

The on-field dramas are rich enough. Will this be the last time an aging Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest player ever, puts on his country’s uniform? Is this unexpectedly strong Venezuela team for real? Across the ocean, how stacked is host country Germany still? Can England manage to not disappoint?

That’s all good, but when I watch the matches, look at the flags, and read the names on the jerseys, I can’t help but see or think about different things entirely – political things.

So when, for example, French striker Kylian Mbappé, whose parents are from Cameroon and Algeria, puts one in the back of the net, I don’t just wonder whether he really is the best player in the world now (is he?). I also immediately think of the backlash against immigration in France, which – as elsewhere in the EU – has boosted the far right. On Sunday in France, in fact, the overtly anti-immigrant party of Marine Le Pen topped the polls in the first round of the country's snap elections. This despite Mbappé's own direct appeals to young French votersnot to let Le Pen's party win.

On that score, when Austria plays Turkey in a few days, help me NOT flip back to the 1683 Siege of Vienna , when the Habsburgs stopped the Ottomans’ last, best attempt to push into the heart of Europe. Far-right politicians in Europe today, of course, have embraced the symbolism of that exact battle as part of their calls to limit immigration from the Islamic world. Keep an eye on ultra-nationalist Euro Twitter on Tuesday when the match is on.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, the Mexico vs. Ecuador game on Sunday was the most exciting faceoff between the two countries since April, when Ecuadorian police raided the Mexican Embassy in Quito, in order to arrest a former Ecuadorian vice president who had taken asylum there while fleeing a corruption conviction.

But I couldn't help thinking of the bigger Ecuador story: the country is in a state of emergency as murders skyrocket amid a war between Mexican (and Colombian) cartels trying to claim turf in the small Andean country. That violence has driven Ecuadoran asylum seekers as far away as New York City, where a growing migrant crisis is defining the city's politics. (See our special on that here.)

Speaking of migrant crises: Venezuela, -- where political repression, economic mismanagement, and the effects of US sanctions have caused more than 7 million people to flee over the past several years -- is somehow fielding one of the strongest teams at the Copa. Could success at the tournament give a boost to strongman Nicolas Maduro? He could use the help. He is so unpopular that he might actually lose a July 28th election that he has spent years carefully designing in his favor.

You get the point.

I understand this is a little nuts. A sports match is just a sports match. But for any politically minded person, it’s never just a sports matchup when it’s national teams.

Like it or not, the politics of how nation-states define themselves — that is, who gets to be in them, who gets what from them, where their borders really are — is at the heart of so many of the most electric political questions in the world today.

The immigration debates in Europe or the US are about who gets to come in. The socioeconomic, political, and racial fault lines and conflicts within countries of Latin America are, in many cases, what is driving people out.

In just about every country represented at the Copa and the Euros, these questions are shaping -- or reshaping -- politics. I can't help if if I'm seeing that in every match. All I'm doing is watching some soccer, right?


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