Last week, my co-workers sat around a computer Googling wars in Yugoslavia. We wanted to know if we could, in good conscience, root for Croatia in the World Cup final. We all preferred to support the underdog, but in this day and age, pledging allegiance to any national team is fraught.
We tried to learn, or relearn, about the breakup of the former Yugoslavia; the violence alternately perpetrated by the Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks; the Bosnian War; the Kosovo War; ethnic cleansing; and the Srebrenica genocide.
We agreed it probably was all Russia’s fault in the first place.
Exhausted from our research, I texted my Serbian/German friend Danijel.
Me: “Are we excited about Croatia in the final or nah?”
Danijel: “It’s complicated.”
Me: “Is it like Mexico? They’re our rivals, but I would root for them over anyone else. Not sure if that extends to situations of genocide …”
Danijel: “It’s hate/love. But they’re our brothers whether they like it or not.”
He closed the discussion with a shrug emoji and a glib outlook: “For the first time, I’m impressed by their fighting.”
I took that conversation as permission to cheer on Croatia. But I knew I’d be happy either way. After all, France had one of the youngest and most diverse teams to ever play in the World Cup. Most of the French players have parents who immigrated from various African countries. Seeing them win would mean so much to kids in poor, refugee and immigrant communities around the world.
I was thankful I didn’t have to choose between teams from corrupt nations, (looking at you, Mother Russia), and then I reflected once again on the absurd notion that sports shouldn’t be political.
It’s a tired argument that gets trotted out whenever an athlete engages in a controversial topic. “Stick to sports,” they’re often told. In the World Cup, the athletes stuck to sports and it was still one of the most politically charged events.
How do the “stick to sports” people choose which team to support? I suppose folks in “America First” gear probably don’t watch the World Cup. But there have to be some who do. Did they flip a coin? Did they base their decision on the coolest jersey? (Looking at you, Nigeria.)
Personally, I love the intersection of sports and politics, and I can’t imagine how you would go about separating them. In an age when the political divide seems larger than it has ever been, sports can bring us back together. We have our differences, but we are all brothers, like it or not.
With that in mind, I happily sat down to watch a game I don’t understand that was played in a politically hostile nation, and I rooted for a country from which my friend’s family fled war. And I was equally delighted when the team with African roots was victorious. Maybe if we embraced the political nature of sports instead of trying so hard to separate them, it would be easier to find the common humanity.
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