I'm thinking of starting a fan group especially for those condemned to ambivalence. There are, I think, actually quite a few of us out there—especially during the World Cup. You know who you are: rooting for both teams at the same time, feeling both happy and sad when someone scores a goal, watching a game surrounded by elated fans but feeling a nagging sorrow for the losing team.
Part of it is that there are too many good stories: every team, and perhaps every player, has one. And during the World Cup, every game, or most of them, makes one of those stories a sad, even tragic, one—at least for a time.
Of course it is absurd, naive, and pointless to watch football in this way. You can't cheer for the US and mourn for Ghana at the same time. The joy of Brooks depends on the sadness of Gyan. The powerful, transcendent elation of watching Van Persie fly depends on the cruel martyrdom of Casillas.
Sometimes I'm totally fine with that. Occasionally the forces of good and evil are, as far as I'm concerned, arrayed against each other clearly on the football field. For me such matches often involve my favorite teams playing Germany or Italy. Of course, given that, evil very frequently triumphs, so that being a committed fan ends up being a very, very sad fan.
My fandom is fickle: I'll admit it. The other day I wildly cheered for Italy, a team which as a French fan I long could barely bear to watch or hear about. Why? I love Balotelli, and I love the way his glorious presence challenges Italian racism.
For a long time, in the parts of Europe I most often find myself you could at least dependably loathe the Germans—recalling Harald Schumacher's brutal, unpunished, combo kick-elbowing of Patrick Battiston in the 1982 semi-final, which left the French player unconscious and twitching on the pitch. You could subtly or not so subtly evoke World War II, and generally feel satisfyingly beleaguered as you lost again and again to them. You could take profound joy in those rare victories, as when—in that same 1982 World Cup—Algeria defeated West Germany, only to have them arrange their next match to make sure Algeria didn't advance. (Next week, when you are frustratingly trying to watch two final group stage matches at once, you can freely blame German-Austrian collusion against Algeria: after that match FIFA changed its rules to prevent such arrangements.)
But now the Germans are so charming! All diverse, with players from many different backgrounds, looking like a neo France 1998 team, and playing gorgeous and effective football to boot. What is one to do?
I got a partial answer to that question as I watched the Algeria-Belgium match on Monday. This was a perfect storm of ambiguity for me. I've written (in my book Soccer Empire) and taught extensively about the history of Algerian football: and it is an inspiring and beautiful history of anti-colonial resistance, conflict and reconciliation, and fascinating stories of complex allegiances. Many friends of mine root for Algeria, whose runs in the World Cup have been stopped (notably through a goal by Landon Donovan in 2010) painfully on too many occasions. I want Algeria to win: it would make a lot of my friends happy, and would also make for a great story. In this tournament, Algeria is carrying the hopes of many fans in North Africa and the Middle East, not to mention France, where the qualification of the team for the 2010 World Cup incited massive celebrations in Marseille. Today's Algeria team, in fact, is made of a majority of players who were born, raised and trained in France, but who as children of Algerians have opted to play for their parent's homeland. All of which is to say: intellectually and historically, everything tugs at me to root for Algeria.
Here’s the problem: I was born in Belgium. That on its own (though of course, in broad terms, a liability that among other things makes one vulnerable to many jokes) I might have been overcome: I've lived in the US since I was an infant, am an American citizen, and frequently find myself passionately defending this country in conversation with various snide Europeans. If the Belgian team was lame or irritating, I could proudly resist the siren song of attenuated nationalism.
But, in a cruel twist, Belgium has offered me an awesome, wonderful team, and one with a fabulous story. They are from absolutely everywhere: from the country's two long-warring tribes, Walloon and Flemish, but also children of immigrants from Morocco, the Congo, and Kenya. There's even a Martinican, Witsel, carrying the proud tradition of French Caribbean footballers (Henry, Thuram, Abidal, Malouda, Anelka, just to name a few) to the land of Waterzoiee. They, especially Vincent Kompany, are funny and charming on Twitter. They seem to genuinely enjoy hanging out together. Many of them are household names among fans of European professional football. Their uniforms—that rich red!—rock. And they rock on the pitch, playing a football that (usually, anyway) is really fun to watch. For the first time basically in forever—and with a little help from Stromae—it's slightly cool to be Belgian!
How can I resist? It's like rooting for France, but without the terrible apprehension, borne from the experiences of the past years, that everything can go horribly wrong at any moment. Of course I know that everything may well go horribly wrong—as it felt like it was for much of the game against Algeria—but the point is that I'm not haunted by sedimented bad memories as I watch, which is kind of nice. In late December, I was moved to write a long piece about players of African background on the French and Belgian teams. And though it was about both of them, it was the pleasure born of the Belgian qualification—and specifically of Lukaku's goals (and amazing celebratory backflip) that made it possible for me to write.
Still, as I started to watch Belgium play Algeria, I felt deeply ambivalent. Then, during the game, something happened: something I couldn't deny. When Algeria scored, I felt sad. I tried not to, imagining the massive cheers going up in Algiers and Palestine and Belleville, the rush of millions of people suddenly feeling like maybe their moment had finally arrived. But I felt sad anyway.
And then, when Fellaini came onto the pitch, and then scored, I cheered. Loudly. In my basement, by myself, but as loudly as if I was in the Grande Place with a beer. And I felt happy. Elated even. And then Belgium scored again. And I felt really good. There was nothing I could do, really. There it was. I was a fan, not an ambivalent one, a shouting, grinning one. And since I feel absolutely nothing for either Russia or South Korea as teams (I'm sure I should, but please don't give me any reasons to ok? I'm happier this way) I can fully enjoy the next to matches.
And then it occurred to me: if Belgium wins the group, and the US is second in their group—a reasonably likely, though by no means assured, outcome—they will play each other in the Round of 16. At a game in Salvador to which I have a ticket. And, at least for that day, being a Belgian-American football fan will be like being a Mexican-American football fan: "Who you gonna root for, dude?" asked on Twitter or in person, perhaps with a small hint of accusation.
Thanks a lot, World Cup. Really, thank you for making everything hard all the time. Back to square one.
Except, of course, that what this means is that, quixotically, I can throw myself fully into rooting for an absolute blow out victory by the US against Germany. (Even if they are charming). But if that wish comes true, of course, Belgium could have to play Germany. I know who I'll root for in that one, but I also fear I know who will win. And I'll probably wish none of this had ever happened.
And then I'll get up the next day, feeling a little better, and start trying to figure out what to do next. Who knows: maybe France will be doing well! They do have this surprising tradition of defeating Brazil in the World Cup, now that I think about it....Who knows where we'll be by next week?
One thing is for sure: Some people will be happy, and some will be sad. And a lot of us, including probably me, will be both at the same time—like if I end up watching France vs Brazil, in Brazil. In the meantime, I'll enjoy a few, crystal, moments of clarity while I can.
Laurent Dubois is Director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University, author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, and editor of the Soccer Politics blog.