Back in the summer of 2006, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel instructed all Germans to smile at their World Cup guests. So they did, in their tens of millions, for weeks and weeks. I was there as a football reporter, and because we travelled around wearing Fifa accreditation tags exactly like the ones worn by the coaches on the touchline, we were easy marks as Ausländers.
It was exhausting. From the North Sea to the Bavarian Alps stretched a white forest of flashing teeth. The black journos among us got special attention, but we all endured a long summer of Teutonic love. On the intercity trains, strangers were always sitting down to tell us a joke, or what might have been a joke. Even the cops would throw in a giggle whenever they asked you not to walk on the grass. By the end of the tournament, I was yearning for the chilly reserve of South African street life.
Merkel is still in charge, and still making Germany the kindest country in the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also still in charge, and still being the unkindest despot in Brics, which is quite an achievement. The Putinist method for seducing the world is akin to the “negging” strategy advocated by misogynist pickup artists: make ’em feel shit and they’ll worship you. Nuke their tea, cook their polls, hack their souls.
It doesn’t work (except perhaps on Jacob Zuma), but does Putin look bothered? Nyet!
He doesn’t want to rebrand Russia. He wants to brand the West, much like a farmer brands a cow.
Putin also knows that, as a political marketing exercise, hosting a World Cup is not nearly as sexy as, say, a morning of topless bear hunting. As South Africa has belatedly learnt, a World Cup is a murderously expensive and usually ineffective branding platform.
Despite our tireless national masturbation efforts back in 2010, the global picture of South Africa remains a dystopian one: a lawless game reserve, alive with possibilities but also alive with racists, poverty, alien prawns and legless murderers. Which is actually pretty accurate, give or take a prawn. At least those bladdy vuvuzelas have simmered down.
Meanwhile, just four years after its own tournament, Brazil is miserable, polarised and convulsed by economic crisis. As in South Africa, the new stadiums are still sparkling but the fans can’t afford a bus ticket to the game. For the plutocrats of both nations, all was not in vain: the deep-state function of hosting a World Cup is to cook up rotten construction deals. And let’s not even get started on the bidding campaigns.
But enough moaning. The citizens of Russia can look after themselves, and they don’t have to smile if they don’t want to.
By the time you read this, the Cup will have begun — and all the beauty and justice in any World Cup happens in the penalty box, not in the VVIP box.
So let’s enjoy the sadistic spectacle: a selection of the world’s greatest pigskin-chasers enduring intolerable psychological pressure. At a World Cup, the stars are no longer the strutting princes of Europe’s great capitals. Instead, they are terrified soldiers in a cartoon world war, shouldering the merciless expectations of entire societies.
Take the Runt of Rosario. In a Barcelona shirt, Leo Messi has peerless power. In an Argentina shirt at a World Cup, he is vulnerable and strangely desperate: always minutes away from calamity, but also minutes away from claiming the only missing evidence of his status as the Greatest of All Time.
Will Neymar eclipse him instead, with the help of a vastly better set of teammates than poor Messi can rely on? Or will Germany once again prove the sublimity of their collective, being a team that is always greater than the sum of its parts?
All the sensible bets are on Germany and Brazil, but Spain are still built for glory, even without coach Julen Lopetegui, who was summarily fired this week for quietly signing a deal with Real Madrid.
The same goes for France. If Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba all get busy at once, they could make Macron smirk like a jerk.
But what we really want is a first-time winner, or at least a shock run to the final by some charismatic upstarts. Belgium are fifth favourites, but their depth of experience and quality makes them conceivable winners, with Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku presenting a terrifying attacking axis.
And what about the Africans of Anfield? If Egypt’s Mo Salah and Senegal’s Sadio Mané can retain the surgical sharpness of their Liverpool campaign, one of them might, might be able to lead a charge through Africa’s quarterfinal barrier.
It was 28 years and seven tournaments ago that Roger Milla’s Cameroon fell at the last eight in Italy. Neither Senegal nor Egypt seem to have the power to beat that mark. But in every World Cup, power shows up where you least expect it.