The World Cup beyond national pride

1994 Romario, the 1994When the 2014 World Cup started, so did the same old questions that I get asked every four years: “Who will you support?”, “Well, you’re Dutch now so will you support Holland?” and my personal favorite – for its undeniable dramatic appeal – “What will you do if there’s a Holland-Brazil final?” The easy answer is that I, like practically every other kid born in Brazil, grew up supporting our national team – the much beloved seleção.

I was seven years old when Brazil won the World Cup in 1994 and fifteen when Brazil won it in 2002. I cried when we lost to France in the 1998 final and, much prior to knowing my mother and I were ever going to move to the Netherlands, I celebrated our extremely nerve-wracking win from the Dutch team in the semi-final of that same competition. My football jerseys were only ever of the Brazil team. I never really had any time for smaller leagues – although my Italian heritage essentially meant I was “genetically predetermined” to support Palmeiras, whose games I did occasionally watch with my father and sister – but I’d always watch any Brazil game that was on with much greater enthusiasm.

I can’t explain exactly why my levels of excitement shoot up so high when Brazil plays. I will gladly celebrate another team’s win – provided they are not playing Brazil, of course – and an exciting match is always a fun experience. But a Brazil win is an adrenaline rush that makes the agonizing 90 to 120 minutes of vein-popping stress of a decisive match totally worth it. And half way through summer – or winter, depending on which hemisphere I find myself in at the time – every four years, the FIFA World Cup shaped hole that is left behind in my life once the tournament is over is absolutely heartbreaking. Whether we win on lose – although winning is pretty awesome, I definitely recommend it.

Yet there is one thing that has changed immensely and undeniably for me since my days as a Brazil-supporting child: I no longer associate the Brazilian team with a sense of national pride. Moreover, I feel pretty uncomfortable in the notion that many – if not most – people don’t make that separation. The anthem that has dominated the World Cup matches this year “Eu sou brasileiro com muito orgulho, com muito amor”, about how proud of being Brazilian people are, makes my fucking skin crawl. I really have some sort of understanding for this perspective having felt such national pride myself when I was younger. But I just cannot relate to feelings of pride over what are, to me, such arbitrary and often cruel boundaries.

Life as an immigrant has really humbled me in that sense. It completely changed my view on the value of the nation state imaginary. In particular as I no longer feel represented or included in a single one. The notion of “our country” rarely includes me. As a first-generation naturalized immigrant, I never quite feel like I am accounted for when one speaks of “the Dutch people”. Nederlanders are a somewhat statically-defined cultural group and I am implicitly – and sometimes actually explicitly – “the other”. As an emigrant, even prior to “losing” my nationality, I also stopped feeling included in the cultural group of my country of birth. “We, the Brazilians” no longer describes my habitus or day-to-day reality either.

So while it makes complete sense for me to support the team I grew up loving, it makes little sense for me to shift that allegiance as I change passports. When I wear orange and cheer Holland on – most of the time, provided they’re not playing Brazil – I am also following up on years of watching them play and participating in collective celebrations that involved their victories. It has little to do with this all-mighty dark red booklet that defines my life chances and freedom to travel and live in so many places with no questions asked.

The questions that people somewhat innocently ask in trying to box my national loyalty in ways that are intelligible to them make absolutely no sense to me. Look, the World Cup has always been symbolic of national divides in an obvious way. And of course geopolitics plays into what team gets “underdog” status – for instance, it suffices to say Brazil garnered much more support back when people thought of it as a third-world country that only had this one thing. Perhaps no World Cup in my lifetime has been more politicized in the host country than the present one. But the fact of the matter is that my eyes glowed as a child watching World Cup games partially because I knew that, for that one month, people all over the planet that care about this sport – and there are so many of us – were connected.

I love the World Cup – in spite of all of its FIFA-related atrociousness – and support my beautiful seleção shamelessly not because I’m a politically-alienated closeted nationalist living with an identity crisis, but because I have always sought to be part of the world. And the truth is that while national teams are the focus of everyone’s devotion in this competition, the summers (and winters) in which I avidly followed the World Cup from a young age were incredibly formative to the international kid eventually became.

Little fluff pieces about how supporters from different countries did things differently on the news during the tournament, languages I never heard before, countries I never thought about, and names I couldn’t begin to imagine how to pronounce: it was like world-traveling from your own living room. The first few bonding conversations I had in the Netherlands with my peers, as an 11-year-old trying to fit in, were over Brazil’s 1998 performance. From the UK to Mexico, from Vietnam to South Africa and even the Philippines where football’s not that popular to begin with, Brazil’s football has always been a conversation starter, a common ground that forged connections in the unlikeliest of situations. World Cup football is enchanting, exciting, and devastating all at once. But most of all, in my life, it has been incredibly uniting. I’d say any sport that can trigger this kind of bonding between different peoples deserves due credit.

The way I look at it, seeing World Cup football merely as a display of national belonging and pride is not doing it any kind of justice.

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