World Cup LARPing: Watching Soccer as Anthropological Research

I must admit that I’m not one to express much interest in watching sports. As those who know me well will tell you, I haven’t an athletic bone in my body. Rather, most would relegate me to more artsy, intellectual archetypes. I usually swipe past Instagram story posts about sports wins and tune out the sports related banter at the table, pretentiously sneering at people’s infantile fixation with something as banal and common as professional sports. And yet, this year I gave in–mostly out of a fetishistic curiosity, a flair for performance art, and admittedly out of a little bit of FOMO–to “caring” about the World Cup. 

In a devious way, I enjoyed slipping into a false identity…putting on a show, a feat of artifice, just because I could. I relished dressing up in team jerseys, and shouting animalistically at the screen at a sports bar, pretending to actually be invested in the meaningless fact that some guy across the world who is paid by sinister technocrats just kicked a ball made by sweatshop workers in a developing country into a net.

Before delving into my cultural experiment in soccer fan LARPing, I ought to give some more background. Despite not being athletic, I played tennis all four years of high school–mostly just to have something to do after school. I didn’t try very hard, and thankfully neither did most of my teammates. The tennis team was for class clowns, nerds, queers, and those who weren’t athletic enough to make it onto sports teams that required you to actually be good. Our team placed little value in winning, and instead focused on cracking jokes, talking shit about the opposing team, and lancing metal clay court line sweepers at each other. 

I only played and watch tennis because it allows the most space for performance art (other than WWE, the lowbrow version of tennis). Tennis is camp. Tennis is an elitist celebration of artifice. Tennis is perhaps the sport most hospitable to modern individualism. Tennis is the sport that lends itself most readily to being “queered,” or for lack of a better term, being “yassified.”
 
Sure, tennis requires raw skill that must be developed with hard work. The logic of the game itself is indeed inherently fascinating and beautiful. But the real stars are not the ones who are committed to the game, but rather the performers. If tennis players rose to stardom on the basis of their skills alone, figures like Serena Williams–who has made a name for herself above all due to her feisty persona–would be largely irrelevant.

Team sports allow for little space for performativity. When individual players begin to camp it up, it’s usually to the detriment of the team (as much as it may gain the team more publicity and viewers). Team sports represent pure nature–where skills take precedence over performativity. Individual self-expression is the transgressive exception. In tennis, it’s the norm. I’d argue that out of all of the team sports, soccer allows the most space for tension between skill and cult of personality. Players’ artistry, attitudes, and aesthetics take up a more prominent place in soccer than in other team sports like football and basketball.

I find the way that “cistypical” men–especially working/lower-middle class ones–get “into” sports to be somewhat of an anomaly. The screaming, shouting, and exaggerated enthusiasm is a comical expression of base instinct. The fact that they care so ardently about something so inconsequential is bemusing. One can easily argue that “feminine” fixations on things like pop/celebrity culture, the arts, red carpets and awards shows, etc. are equally infantile and vapid. 

But thus the allure of soccer: it combines the masculine and feminine, or as Nietzsche would put it: Apollonian order and Dionysian sensuality, the natural artistry of a skilled player combined with artificial performance art. It’s not so hard to slip out of “stanning” a pop singer and into doing so for a soccer star like Neymar Jr. or Messi, who “serve up” attitude and style. In the least, I find it easier to do so for a soccer player than for the more purely Apollonian and stoic personas of football players.

As philosophers like Charles Taylor and Peter Berger have noted, global sporting events like the World Cup fill in the vacuum of spiritual disenchantment brought on by mass secularization. The fascination of watching such a sublime feat of competition, struggle, skill, and beauty, and of sharing this moment with one’s friends and (virtually) with people around the world, provides us with a momentary feeling of transcendence. It gives us the illusion that we are on the brink of something much greater than ourselves. Even the Pope himself often speaks about the spiritual and unitive value of watching soccer. I concede that in many regards, sports are symbolic of certain transcendent values. And if one were to probe deep enough into the experience of watching them, they can serve as a stepping stone toward encountering the divine. 

But let’s not kid ourselves. Most people are not contemplating eternal truths while watching the World Cup, nor are they pursuing a deeper form of communion with their fellow fans (or with the higher Source of unity and beauty in that moment). The entertainment value trumps the symbolic nature of the game, rendering it a form of distraction. Watching the game, televised by global elitist television networks, at a bar with friends–or worse, from the comfort of one’s home, making small talk the next day asking your coworker if they “caught that sick goal”, or posting a prefab infographic celebrating your favorite team’s victory to your Instagram story, provides a flat experience of unity that, rather than leading us toward something more substantial, just serves as a temporary void filler, as we continue trudging along in our atomized, vapid existence.

The World Cup calls to mind what Taylor calls moments of “festive anti-structure,” which in pre-modern societies, permitted a break from “profane, ordinary” life and served as “kairotic knots,” reminding the public that “chronos” (temporal or secular time) is perforated by sacred time. As I wrote recently in an article on Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, these communal gatherings like Carnival or saint feasts put the “natural” in tension with the “supernatural” forces and serve to unify people across social statuses. 

Taylor argues that events like Princess Di’s funeral or the Olympics that garner the world’s attention are secular counterparts to these moments of anti-structure, which contain muted vestiges of cosmic symbolism: “There is a heightened excitement at these moments of fusion, reminiscent of Carnival, or of some of the great collective rituals of earlier days…[During] these times of collective effervescence…what is shared is something else. Not so much an action, as an emotion, a powerful common feeling.

What is happening is that we are all being touched together, moved as one, sensing ourselves as fused in our contact with something greater, deeply moving, or admirable; whose power to move us has been immensely magnified by the fusion…[in] which both wrench us out of the everyday, and seem to put us in touch with something exceptional, beyond ourselves.”

In the past, events like the royal funeral and the World Cup might have pointed more explicitly to something transcendent in our midst. But the signs embedded in such symbolic moments are quickly collapsed into the atomizing vacuum of global homogenization at the hands of corporate, technocratic elites. Rather than recognizing and actively upholding the transformative capacity of events like the World Cup, most of us will slip back into living our humdrum lives…the momentary feeling of transcendence it provided us dissipating into the flatness of our hollow daily existence. Were we to take a step back and look more closely, we would see that events like the World Cup are pregnant with cosmic forces that have the power to uplift and imbue a deeper meaning on our everyday routines. 

My “anthropological research” of the cult of the World Cup was equally illuminating as it was disappointing. The kind of hype that it builds up leaves one feeling sad and disillusioned by the time it all ends, looking for some other novelty to distract us from the void…not much unlike the other forms of entertainment we are barraged with today. More than anything, it reminded me of the necessity to approach popular culture with a healthy level of ironic detachment in order not to get sucked into the vortex of disenchantment. 

 

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