One night in Johannesburg during the World Cup, I was chatting with an English friend over a bottle of South African red about the impending England-Germany game. My friend is an august figure, a well-traveled political commentator, never happier than when weighing the chances of war in Iran. At first, he made some ironic remarks about the England team. But pretty soon, he couldn't resist the temptation: He stuck out his arms in imitation of the outstretched wings of a Royal Air Force plane from World War II. He was an England fan preparing for a game against Germany, and that's what England fans do.
If you had to pick a game during the 2010 World Cup that looked freighted with political meaning, it was England-Germany. This is still the encounter English fans care about most, and this time again, some fans and newspapers swathed it in the language of conflict. In truth, some treated England's entire campaign as a reliving of World War II. Even before the England-Algeria game, the Sun newspaper's headline invoked Winston Churchill: "Their finest hour (and a half)."
All this talk was fodder for wannabe sociopolitical commentators like me. But we shouldn't be fooled. The teeth have been taken out of the England-Germany rivalry, as out of almost all rivalries in international soccer these days. Back home after a breathless month in South Africa, it's plain to see: The sorry truth is that the World Cup is losing its geopolitical meaning altogether. To twist the title of Franklin Foer's famous book: soccer is ceasing to explain the world. There were still some political observations to make about the host country, South Africa, and the winning country, Spain. But for the most part, this tournament exemplified how everywhere on Earth is becoming the same place.
That's quite a shift indeed, because the World Cup used to be a festival of geopolitics. The tournament began in 1930, just as fascism was getting going. Then, after a decent interruption for World War II, the World Cup resumed in an era of hysterical nationalism. Postwar European countries still nursed resentments -- chiefly, against Germany -- that came out on the turf. Meanwhile, Latin American countries were often still experimenting with fascism or hypernationalism, sometimes both. When the Africans entered the tournament in the 1970s, their regimes also often sought to milk soccer for national status.
During these decades, geopolitics gave the World Cup spice. And similarly, the World Cup spiced up politics. In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras actually fought a "Soccer War" after playing three keenly disputed qualifying games for the next year's tournament. For many European countries, the game that truly mattered was the one against West Germany. The Dutch defeat to the Germans in the final in 1974 was certainly Holland's worst sporting trauma. One Dutch midfielder, Wim van Hanegem, had lost his father, 10-year-old brother, and six other van Hanegems to a wartime bombing of the family's home village. And the lyrics of Three Lions, the unofficial anthem of English soccer, is mostly about defeats to Germany.
World Cups in these good old days featured all sorts of other bitterness too. Part of hysterical nationalism was the supposition that the other guys cheated. "Animals," England's coach Alf Ramsey called the Argentines after beating them in 1966. The Argentines and Portuguese later exited that tournament spouting conspiracy theories about the English, whom they still fondly imagined to rule the world. In the 1982 cup, Polish fans under Soviet rule carried a banner to the Poland-USSR game reading only "Solidarnosc," a reference to the Polish trade union that had been banned after Poland’s communist rulers had imposed martial law six months earlier. Sweetly, Poland managed to tie -- enough for them to advance to the next round. As Holland's coach, Rinus Michels, supposedly said (though in fact never did), "Football is war."