When You Don’t Know Who To Cheer For In The World Cup

Choose England. Or pick and choose according to a points system in which the rules are quite mad.

We did it. Football is marginally closer to coming home.

England is in the final four of the World Cup thanks to a convincing 2–0 win over Sweden last Saturday, and so I still have a horse in this race, which is as surprising to me as it is to a number of British people, seeing as football disappointment is woven into our DNA. On Wednesday, we will face Croatia, who knocked out Russia the same day England triumphed. Perhaps in an effort to quell that specifically English football–focused brand of hopeless hope, I am already anticipating stage fright and a rough exit — no, not that one — but I have an unyielding vessel in which to place that automatic blind support. I will be cheering on my team until the wheels fall off (probably in penalties, shudder).

It’s nice knowing who to root for without much conscious extra thought; my wine-colored passport made the decision before I knew what the offside rule was. And while I abhor displays of jingoistic nationalism (especially in a post-Brexit landscape) and believe borders to be immoral at their core, I become tribal every four years.

Even so, in the event of England not making it all the way, I always have a series of contingency manoeuvers, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. In fact, there is always a delicate calculus at play when it comes to the World Cup. Even more emotional than the already fraught subject of nationhood can be, this shifting, Jules Rimet trophy–centered mathematics is based on any number of variables, arbitrary and often nonsensical, with place of birth being among the least important.

Here’s what is worth considering when deciding who to root for: Who’s likely to play stylish football, who seems to want it more, who would it absolutely crush to lose, sending schadenfreude levels through the roof? Who’s got the most handsome team? The whole thing is foolish and defies logic. And there are inevitable undercurrents of historical horror to factor in. But it’s also fun! Think Eurovision with more whistles, grass, and testosterone.

Allow me to shine a weak beam of light.

I personally start off most World Cup tournaments with one foot firmly embedded in two camps: Nigeria and England. I grew up between the two football-mad countries, each holding an unstinting belief that every four years they can make it to the final and somehow triumph. This is, of course, rooted in a weird optimism; for Nigeria, unrestrained self-belief and wildly unfounded optimism are just a way of life, while for England, the optimism stems from a mix of a low dosage of that old empire juice in the water supply and good old-fashioned we did it before, dammit (never mind their win was all the way back in 1966; see also: Wimbledon, Virginia Wade, and Andy Murray). We could do it, is the internal (and external) monologue, right up until we crash out, ideally on penalties for that extra gut wrench. However those two nations get along in their group games determines the flow of my support.

In the downtime between my two main teams playing, I distribute the largesse of my support across all of Africa’s fleet-footed representatives. There were only five African nations to make it to Russia — Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt (and arguably France, but we’ll get to that later) and so I gently sidestepped a history of anti-black North African racism to keep an eye on the score lines, tally group points, and gnash my teeth accordingly. We are one, my heart encourages, and if one of us makes it, we all do.

The choice of 87.6% of my heart, Nigeria, got knocked out in the group stages, our young team sadly not up to those wily Argentinians yet again. 

The choice of 87.6% of my heart, Nigeria — I have a passport, I lived there for almost a decade, I speak and understand two of its many languages fluently, we’d be superb winners — got knocked out in the group stages, our young team sadly not up to those wily Argentinians yet again. (We have met them five times at the World Cup.) We took our wonderfully designed kit and our exuberant fans and moved on — and my allegiances switched seamlessly to Senegal, by then the last (African) man standing.

The sentiment in the many group chats was clear: “They're the only ones left!” (We all knew exactly what they were the last of); “Welp, we're all Senegalese now!” (Nkrumah’s dream of Pan-Africanism finally realized); “Call me Fatou!” (self-explanatory) and so on. Sadly, Colombia dashed Senegal’s dreams. But that’s one checkpoint on the calculations sheet: The continent matters. Marcus Garvey smiles on us all.

With the Africans all gone, the axes shifted for me. I had to consider the matches in which the stakes are so low as to be virtually nonexistent: Iceland versus Croatia, for example, or Serbia versus Switzerland? I searched my brain for collected facts from years of history classes. Serbia and Croatia had been involved in the Yugoslav Wars, Switzerland has chocolate, useful knives, and sometimes useless neutrality; Iceland gave us one Björk Guðmundsdóttir.

My advice? Pick and choose according to a points system in which the rules are quite mad. Be as fair as you can. (For the record, I fancied Iceland over Croatia, despite the latter having given us (a) Goran Višnjić aka Dr. Luka Kovač in ER and (b) something delightfully named the Dalmatian coast — did you know that Croatia has the 15th longest coastline in the world? And I was split for Serbia versus Switzerland, because, well, it’s complicated, and I love my footballing Muslim brothers.) Which brings us to another marker on the support rubric: oddly specific and yet meaningless kinship based on history.

On Monday, July 2, there were two matches played in the round of 16 stage: Brazil versus Mexico and Belgium versus Japan. I had done the maths (we don’t say “math” and it’s fine) and formed new, temporary allegiances. On the one hand, Brazil is home to the largest black population on Earth outside of Africa: an obvious point of interest and connection. On the other, Brazil was the last place in the Americas to give up slavery, and the black population is routinely treated poorly, from the mundane everyday stuff to the really big stuff. Mexico has had a singularly depressing narrative run in the US lately, further cemented on the day the current American president declared his candidacy (“Some, I assume, are good people.”)

Bringing the trophy home might be nice for them in such a climate. Plus, shoutout to Miguel, the #1 search result on my internal Google of “Afro-Mexicans.” That’s my general method for the South and Central American contingent: Do they have black people there? (Trick question; everywhere has black people!) How do they treat them, and also their indigenous peoples? Did they execute a controversial “hand of God” goal at some point in their past? Do they export delicious plantains? Like I said, it rarely makes sense. In a nutshell, I rode hard for Peru, Panama, and Costa Rica, but there is video footage of me letting out an ungracious yet sonorous cackle of pleasure after England won the penalty shootout against Colombia.

The Belgium–Japan match was an easy choice, despite the presence of the handsome and talented striker Romelu Lukaku. As someone in my group chat after Belgium triumphed put it half-seriously, “First their misadventures in Congo, now this?” Indeed. My calculus may have failed to yield victory on the pitch (adiós, Mexico; see ya, Japan!), but I felt ethically sated at least. (When I mentioned the system I had employed in order to back Japan, a colleague immediately retorted, “Ah, if you were Korean, you might feel differently.” Touché. For what it’s worth, I had my faves: South Korea (who took out Germany — YEAH!) and Iran (knocked out at the group stages, bless).

Almost all the European teams have a measure of blood on their hands in the past — my own nationality is predicated on past fuckery by the government that issued my passport — but some are easier to root for than others. However, my Nigerianness precludes any real love for Portugal because #colonialism; Spain continues to be Spain; a Croatian player did this; Denmark canceled Borgen, and I am wounded still; Russia is…Russia. Poland? Poland.

England’s current World Cup squad has no fewer than 11 players with one black parent, with backgrounds from across the Commonwealth (hello, my half-Naija cousin Bamidele Jermaine Alli, and my second cousin once removed, Raheem Sterling, born in Kingston, Jamaica). My wanting England to win is rooted in an intangible familiarity with the individuals playing and what they represent, complicating identity in new and welcome ways for those of us who were told we couldn’t call ourselves English, and who wouldn’t want to anyway. Flinching in the face of flag-waving, “God Save the Queen”–bellowing fans and finding a soft landing spot somewhere between genuine excitement and mild mockery of the small, often inward/backward–looking island we come from – that’s our (first, second, and third generation) lot. That a good number of us find that many of the squad look and sound like the boys our younger brothers might have played five-a-side with is a bonus.

But look at France! Their tongue-in-cheek designation as the sixth African nation in the competition is entirely understandable. You really want to see Africa in Europe? Look no further. The blackness of the French squad feels like a very specific balm, representing as they are the nation that once extracted an “independence debt” from Haiti after the latter gained independence. The French team’s blackness — their very Africanness, via Angola, Guinea, Cameroon, Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Togo — gleefully thumbs its nose at the all-too-many gatekeepers who want to shut Europe off from the citizens of the countries many made their riches off of, and others besides. Their presence throws all my already random sums into even more disarray. If France wins its match against Belgium and England goes on to beat Croatia in Wednesday’s semifinal, that’ll pit my African heart against my European one in the final. That’s a lot of ifs, but that’s exactly what the World Cup calls for.

But my God. Imagine if it actually did come home.

The whimsical nature of World Cup maths means it is never faulty; the customer (you) is always right. Real maths requires a necessary rigidity, at least at the level most of us study it to, but World Cup maths is fluid to the end, a living thing whose outcomes are often changing in real time as more salient facts come to light.

The sums aren’t done until the final whistle. ●

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