Football is so all-consuming, it has the tendency to swallow everything up. Even those who don’t give a damn about the sport won’t be able to ignore the World Cup.
In the weeks leading up to it, I can’t go anywhere in Bangkok without being reminded that the tournament is just around the corner: my local Seven Eleven is selling football posters and Pepsi bottles with players’ faces on them, my friends are already making predictions on who’s going to win, and at home my mother has just put the schedule for the matches up on a wall. Personally, I can’t wait for the tournament to start.
Football journalist Rory Smith once tweeted: “It’s remarkable that the FIFA World Cup—eight years of corruption allegations inspired by a vote won by two repressive countries [Russia and Qatar] hoping to use it as a political tool—seems a bit like a relief”. Smith is right: it is completely mad how every four years we as a global community coalesce around the World Cup. We get pulled in even though FIFA is an organisation riddled with corruption and tarred by human rights violations, including the deaths of stadium workers in Qatar.
I, along with millions, might sneer at FIFA for its misdeeds, but when the referee blows the whistle and the tournament kick-offs, those allegations will fade into the background and my focus will be on one thing and one thing only.
Past anti-FIFA protests have yielded minimal results. During the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 I recall media attention on protests—against corruption, the high cost of stadium construction and the relocation of locals—but the main talking point of that tournament remains Brazil’s 7-1 capitulation to Germany in the semi-final.
This time there have been calls for a boycott of Russia. No UK politicians or members of the British royal family will be attending the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Yet it is hard to imagine that this would make any dent in the popularity of the tournament itself. The possibility of any boycott from those who really matter—players, sponsors, football fans and viewers around the world—is slimmer than Wayne Rooney’s chance of growing his hair back.
The World Cup has become an unmissable communal event, something akin to a Game of Thrones finale, a new Star Wars film, or the latest Royal Wedding. One of the fondest memories I share with my brother is seeing the brilliant Spanish team winning the World Cup for the first time in 2010. We both gasped in shock when Nigel de Jong kung-fu kicked Xabi Alonso in the chest, and when Andres Iniesta’s shot went in, we celebrated together as though it was Thailand that won it.
Of course Thailand won’t be in Russia. It has yet to qualify for a World Cup. Without a national team to support, I tend to go for a different team every four years. My choice is based on the most random of reasons, such as the players’ likability, their celebration style, how much they run, etc. I was on the Spanish bandwagon for a couple of years when they were playing irresistible football; supported Argentina in the final against Germany (simply because I wanted Messi to win); cheered for Ghana in Brazil, because how could you not; and have always rooted for Japan to do well just so there would be an Asian presence in the latter stages of the competition. This year, however, I’m leaning heavily towards the Nigerians, the reasons being, of course, their incredible-looking kit, their exquisite photoshoots, and the players’ insane fashion game.
So, on 14 June, switch on your TV and mobile devices and revel in the spectacle. This is mindless escapism at its universal best. The 21st FIFA World Cup: Let me in on the joke.
Pim Wangtechawat is a Bangkok-based writer