Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Other Football

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

CNN published an opinion piece by John Avlon last week titled “The tide is turning against autocracy.”  In it, Avlon argued that democracy - beaten down, battered and bruised in recent years – was regaining ground against the global spread of autocracy.  His evidence of a weakening autocratic grip included on-going protests in Iran, recent uprisings in China against President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy and Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations in Ukraine – underestimating Ukrainian resistance, the West’s support of Ukraine’s cause and the reaction within Russia itself. 

There are indications of renewed democratic strength here at home too.  After the unprecedented, violent and baseless internal attack on the 2020 election results, our democracy wavered.  But leadership rose from both sides of the aisle, some on the right knowingly sacrificing seats in Congress, to ensure the will of the people was carried out.  There are signs of further progress: the 2022 mid-term election results suggest that wannabe autocrat Donald Trump’s dangerous spell and destructive want of power is losing support.  

Avlon’s piece concluded with a prediction: 2022 will prove to be a pivot point where democracy, buoyed by bravery of people around the world, regained the advantage on autocracies.  Let’s hope he’s right. 

As I considered Avlon’s optimistic prose, international athletic competition, and the stage it provides for competing political, economic and social ideologies, came to mind.  In 1936, the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, clouded by the rise and provocation of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.  In 1968, African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised fists on the medal stand in defiance of racial inequality.  The 1972 Munich Games were marred by the deadly kidnapping of Israeli athletes by Palestinian militants.  During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union traded Olympic boycotts – first the U.S. of the 1980 Moscow Games and then the Soviet Union of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. 

With the 2022 Beijing Winter Games months in the rear-view, the FIFA World Cup offers the most convenient connection between international sports and Avlon’s democracy v. autocracy article.  Before launching into the first World Cup “View”, a few confessions.  It will always be soccer to me, Americanized heathen that I am.  And while I appreciate the players’ elite fitness, the attraction escapes me.  Ninety-plus minutes of mostly undramatic scorelessness – a.k.a. nap time.  But the issue is mine; the passion displayed by soccer fans around the globe leaves no doubt. 

So, armed with Avlon’s opinions, I looked closer at this wildly popular game.  The basic tenets of team sports are present on the pitch: trust, reliability and individual sacrifice for a common cause - hints they are at democratic principles.  Selfishness and freelancing for individual good – sports code for autocracy – are strict no-noes. 

But soccer brings much more to the consciousness. 

Even to the untrained eye, and during the long pulse-reducing waits between scoring chances, the enormity of each game remains palatable.  The World Cup’s competitive plot – this being the sport’s pinnacle and the unimaginable journey each player traveled to arrive at this moment - is omnipresent.  But it is only half the story.  The other, more significant component of this grand, worldwide quest is the burden carried by each player and team: to satisfy a national fan base whose passion (dangerously) approaches a religious fervor and to navigate a massive stage coinhabited by competing ideologies.    

In this World Cup, several teams protested host country Qatar’s oppression of the LGBTQ community and women’s rights, and the deplorable treatment of migrant workers (The Guardian reported over 6,500 deaths since 2010).  And what team was more burdened than Iran?  The Iranian players first refused to sing their national anthem in support of in-country protests of Iran’s autocratic regime, an act that put players and their families in peril; in the ultimate no-win situation, Iran’s loss to the United States was widely celebrated by fellow Iranians because of the national team’s synonymity with Iran’s leaders.    

In America, we laud our football players for their toughness and perseverance, and rightfully so; but perhaps the bravest athletes, and those most responsible for supporting democratic values worldwide, play “the other football.” 

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