Discover more from David Moscrop
Three Cheers for the (Eliminated) Underdog!
Canada is out of the World Cup, but for a moment much of the country pulled together in solidarity—a sentiment worth savouring and emulating beyond the pitch.
When Canada made its first appearance at the World Cup since 1986, the team on the pitch was meeting not only Belgium, the second-highest rated men’s football side on the planet, but a test of the sport in its home country. At least 3.7 million viewers in Canada tuned in on three networks on average, making the match the second-most-watched event after Super Bowl LVI.
In total, nearly 10 million people caught at least some of the match. The number is surely higher, given that viewers likely found, let’s say, alternative ways to watch. In short, roughly a quarter of the country did something together.
Canada lost to Belgium, 1-0 in a game it could have won—or, indeed, you might say ought to have won. With 22 shots to Belgium’s 9, the scrappy underdog could have netted one of them as they outplayed the favourites during stretches of the match. And yet, only three of those shots were on target (the same number as Belgium). Also, while Canada missed a penalty kick early in the match, it might very well have deserved a shot at two others denied to them.
Days after facing Belgium, the side went down 4-1 to Croatia and, despite Alphonso Davies scoring Canada’s first-ever World Cup goal, were eliminated from the tournament. As the team came up short, the country—which is to say the millions watching—felt it, too.
At the 1986 World Cup, Canada scored no goals and won no matches. This time, they fared better but still failed to secure a match point. At least, however, the team scored two goals, the second coming in their third match, a 2-1 loss to Morocco.
Canada was a compelling team to cheer for—not only for being a long-shot underdog, but for being genuinely fun to watch. Given the team’s tournament qualifying efforts and World Cup appearance itself, it ought to be the in running for most improved. The team’s success is a reflection of a national program that has made leaps and bounds in recent years on the men’s side. It also continues to thrive on the women’s side, which has long been an international standard bearer for excellence.
It’s easy to cheer against FIFA, a corrupt, venial, and patently ridiculous organization that ought to be torn down to the studs and rebuilt. As Will Magee argues in Tribune, as bad as it looks, it’s worse. Money dominates and shapes the World Cup and international football. “Qatar 2022 may be an extreme example of how money is distorting the game” he notes, “but it is still part of a wider pattern. Football has long been beholden to the wealthy, but they are now trying to remake it in their own image in ways that have never been seen before.”
It’s easy to cheer against FIFA because it absolutely deserves to be denounced. It’s also easy, and necessary, to cheer against Qatar’s hosting of the tournament, punctuated as it was by homophobia and the wretched, deadly treatment of migrant workers.
At the same time, it’s perfectly permissible to enjoy a moment or two pulling, together, in solidarity for the home underdog side—something we can do together, something we can enjoy as an assemblage. I wouldn’t go so far as to say our collective rooting for the home side is evidence of the sort of deep, stable, mass solidarity we need to muster for larger projects of class alignment, state program building, and economic transformation, but it certainly represents a regulative ideal we ought to keep in mind for trickier, grittier ventures.
Sports affinities resemble certain kinds of political attachments because each tends to rely on the same in-group gravity that draws one in and keeps them fixed in a particular firmament. That isn’t to say that there is no rational reason to pull for a particular team or support a political party, but partisan phenomena tend to represent a social and emotional connection that blends rational goals and non-rational needs. That mix can prove to be toxic, inconsistent, counterproductive, and even violent. But it doesn’t have to be; it doesn’t always go that way.
As fundamentally social, community-based beings, making connections with others is what we do. It’s what we need to do to survive. In the less belligerent iterations of the that need, we can be awfully productive, building everything from sports teams and programs to states that deliver the infrastructure, services, and programs that keep people happy, healthy, and connected. In moments of connection and solidarity, we ought to accept the power of assemblage and the joy of a shared undertaking. Those moments pattern a model we could emulate strategically here or there, but they’re also fine to enjoy it for their own sake.
I don’t consider myself a nationalist and I’d prefer not to be one. Indeed, I’m weary of the draw. We know what various iterations of both civic and ethnic varieties of nationalism have been mobilized for and the history isn’t pretty. Even the more banal versions of the sentiment are subject to hijacking for exclusionary, reactionary, and violent purposes. But mass-level solidarity, person to person, community to community, class to class, built from the ground up and towards a common, shared goal, is essential for large-scale projects and programs, the sorts of things states ought to be in the business of doing to ensure those within its borders (and, often, beyond them) are cared for.
Once again, while the shared connection of sport is proof of a certain sort of concept, we shouldn’t want to stretch the similarities too far. After all, at the national level it’s easy for a country to pull in the same direction for their team. It happens all the time in Canada and in most countries. But it isn’t all sunshine and victory parades. As we know from international play between countries and local league play between, even within, cities, unity found at one level can be sundered at another, producing vitriol, abuse, hate, and even physical violence. Moreover, affinities can cut across affiliations and create complicated tensions, particularly at layered ethnic and national origins, as the Canada-Croatia match showed us.
Still, there’s something to be said for appreciating a moment of widespread, if thin, solidarity. There’s something to be said for thinking on it as a potential source, inspiration, or model for something such that would be infinitely more difficult but profoundly important.
The work of large-scale political projects will continue with or without sports. Obviously. But sport will remain a big part of the lives of millions of people. As it does, it won’t hurt anyone to punctuate the effort of those projects with collective moments of cheering for the home side and reflecting on what that connection could mean beyond the pitch.