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D.C.'s Diplomatic Community Celebrates World Cup

By Jeffery Miles

This summer, the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup may have taken place in Russia, but there was plenty of action here in D.C. among the city’s diplomatic community, including an array of embassy viewings, a local tournament and even the occasional political dustup.
 
For the first time, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office and the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation put on the D.C. Embassy World Cup, a local soccer tournament among 16 of the 32 nations competing in this year’s FIFA World Cup. The embassies were placed in four groups of four, in a 7-on-7 format, each playing the other three within their group. The two best teams from each group advanced to the quarterfinals, with the competition becoming single-game knockout from then on.
 
Spectators included diplomats, family and friends. Russia had one of the more impressive fan turnouts, with a bus of over 40 supporters appearing at each of their games.

1-FIFA-PouchThe Embassy of the United Kingdom hosted a viewing party at Wunder Garten for their match against Croatia in the Semi-Finals. (Photo: Tyler Miles)

In an interview with the Diplomatic Pouch, a Paulina Chavez Alonso of the Mexican Embassy, said soccer plays a vital role in Mexican culture.“Mexicans are proud of their national identity and soccer is a means to express our nationalism, especially during the World Cup.”
 
That sentiment of national unity is why the FIFA World Cup, held every four years and founded in 1930, is the most-watched sporting event on the planet. And while soccer is not as popular as football is in the United States, the World Cup is a huge deal in a city as international as D.C.
 
That enthusiasm was on display at D.C.’s own Embassy World Cup. After a hard-fought tournament, the competition eventually boiled down to two embassy teams in the championship game: Argentina vs. Serbia. The final match was postponed due to inclement weather and will now be held Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. at the Jelleff Recreation Center in Northwest D.C.(for information, visit https://dcembassyworldcup.splashthat.com).
 
“There is a spirit of friendship and healthy competition among all the participating embassies,” said Brian Burton of the Argentine Embassy.
 
In the semi-finals, Argentina squared off against France, which played well but lost.
 
On the international stage, however, France took home the victory in the FIFA World Cup on July 15, beating out underdog Croatia 4-2 to claim its second World Cup win and the fourth consecutive title won by a European team.
 
But the FIFA World Cup has become a point of pride for a diverse range of nations that extends far beyond Europe, from Egypt to Senegal to Saudi Arabia to Uruguay.
 
For some, such as Panama, which played in the World Cup for the first time this year, the tournament was one of the biggest events in their countries’ history.“Witnessing Panama’s first-ever World Cup goal[were] historical moments that we will forever treasure in our hearts,” said Andrea Mendez of the Panamanian Embassy.
 
To show their national pride, numerous embassies also took part in the World Cup festivities by hosting viewing parties of their nations’ matches here in D.C. These events drew spectators and hard-core supporters alike, many donning their country’s national colors and flags.
 
Sweden hosted a viewing party outdoors when it played Germany on June 23, and then another party when it faced off against Switzerland on July 3.
 
Early in the tournament, Argentina, whose team was among the top-ranked in the World Cup, opened its embassy doors to a smattering of Croatian diplomats, with the Argentines fully expecting a win. But Croatia, with a population of just 4 million, beat the Argentine team in an upset that led to a string of unlikely victories for the underdog team.
 
The Washington Post reported on the scene inside the Argentine Embassy, which quickly soured for the blue-and-white-clad Argentine fans.“The Croatians’ belly laughs became nervous ones inside the room, which was set up like a movie theater with a big screen and 70 plush seats. There were five Croatians, six when the driver clapped for the Blazers, and they seemed fewer as howls surrounded them:‘Vamos, vamos Argentina!’ wrote Sam Fortier.
 
After an Argentine goalie flubbed and the match went downhill for Argentina, its fans filed out while the Croatian diplomats looked on in shock.“Once outside, the Croatians gathered in a circle,” Fortier wrote, noting the words of Second Secretary Josip Babic:“I can’t believe it.”
 
For the semi-finals, the British Embassy hosted a viewing party at Wunder Garten in Northeast D.C. to see how its players fared against the seemingly unstoppable Croatia. The event featured local craft beers, wine and food trucks. Unfortunately for the Brits, this match would be England’s downfall, sending Croatia to its first-ever FIFA World Cup final. The Croatian Embassy would end up hosting its own viewing party for the championship game at Church Hall Pub in Georgetown.
 
The FIFA World Cup is the most followed sporting event in the world, so alongside the national festivities are the inevitable political tensions. This year’s World Cup was no different, with numerous controversies illustrating how difficult it is to keep politics out of sports.
 
In particular, diversity on the teams was both a unifying and divisive factor in many of the games, especially in light of the anti-immigrant, populist debates raging in Europe.

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The Swedish embassy set up a large screen in a local park to watch their boys take on the previously defending champion, Germany. (Photo: Embassy of Sweden)

After the World Cup, Mesut Özil resigned from the powerhouse German national team following an uproar over a photo he took with newly re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Some Germans said Özil and his teammate Ilkay Gundogan should not have even played in the World Cup for having taken the photo.
 
While Erdoğan’s victory is widely viewed as a power grab, the criticism directed at Özil’s Muslim and Turkish heritage bore echoes of racism and xenophobia. Germany, well known for its open-door policy that absorbed 1 million asylum-seekers in 2015, has recently shifted to restrict the amount of refugees it allows in the wake of a populist backlash.
 
Özil, a center midfielder for the British Premier League team Arsenal, was born in Germany, but his parents are of Turkish descent.
 
In a statement, Özil expressed the frustrations of many immigrants who straddle two cultures in Europe:“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” he said.
 
Gundogan has since distanced himself from the photo while Özil has stood his ground, saying he was“respecting the highest office of his family’s country.” His former teammates have also rallied around Özil, wearing T-shirts with his face that say,“We are all you.”

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The Argentine Embassy hosted a viewing party in their own embassy and invited some rival fans to join them. (Photo: Embassy of Argentina)

Another match that exposed deep-seated ethnic wounds involved a nation that wasn’t even participating. Swiss players Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, both ethnic Albanians, were born in what is now Kosovo but left the country during the Balkan wars. Shaqiri, a newly minted Liverpool player, and Xhaka, an Arsenal midfielder, were both not permitted to play for Kosovo due to a rule not allowing players who have already competed for other nations to join the newly commissioned Kosovar team.
 
So when Switzerland took on Serbia in the group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the match became a proxy battle between Serbia and Kosovo, which unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia, which considers Kosovo the cradle of its national identity and civilization, adamantly refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
 
Shaqiri and Xhaka didn’t miss their opportunity to pay homage to their homeland and stick it to their Balkan rival. Both players scored in their 2-1 win over Serbia and celebrated with a gesture referencing the two-headed eagle on the Albanian flag, sparking outrage in Serbia.
 
Serbia and Albania aren’t new to controversy on the pitch. In October 2014, a drone carrying a flag of greater Albania flew over a Euro Cup qualifier in Serbia between the two teams. A Serbian player grabbed the flag out of the sky, which triggered a brawl on the field, with fans getting involved. Eventually the game had to be abandoned, with Albanian players being rushed off the field as fans mobbed them. Following the event, however, many Albanian players credited Serbian players with defending them as fans threw debris and assaulted them.
 
4-FIFA-PouchFans were treated to a surprise when former English star and current DC United forward appeared at the British Embassies viewing party. (Photo: Kate Greer of the British Embassy)
 
Here in D.C., the World Cup sparked a diplomatic row that made national headlines and also revealed the complexities of race relations, especially in Europe.
 
After France won the World, Cup, popular Comedy Central host Trevor Noah made a controversial joke congratulating Africa for winning the World Cup, referring to the large role that black players of African descent had in France’s victory.
 
French Ambassador Gérard Araud responded with a pointed letter criticizing Noah for failing to acknowledge France’s diversity and reinforcing the“ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French.”
 
“As many of the players have already stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country but the great majority of them, all but two out of 23, were born in France,” the ambassador wrote.“They were educated in France, they learned to play soccer in France, they are French citizens. They are proud of their country, France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.”
 
Noah, in turn, took to the airwaves to rebut the ambassador’s claims, asking how these players actually became French.
 
“What the ambassador sees as a reflection of France’s diversity is actually a reflection of France’s colonialism,” he argued.“When I’m saying‘African,’ I’m not saying it to exclude them from their French-ness. I’m saying it to include them in my African-ness,” said the“Daily Show” host, who is originally from South Africa.
 
While many of Noah’s fans agreed that France’s World Cup victory exposed the lack of tolerance in the country, others, including French professional players, disagreed with his portrayal. Senegalese-French soccer player Benjamin Medy, for instance, replied with a simple tweet that put a French flag next to the names of each player along with the word“fixed.”
 
The next World Cup, to be held in 2022 in Qatar, is certain to come with its own controversies(Qatar itself has been accused of offering bribes to host the tournament) and won’t put an end to the debate over diversity versus nationalism in sports. But at least the World Cup has opened up the debate, particularly at a time of harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.
 
“That shared moment of sporting pride made me reflect on how the World Cup offers an utterly different worldview from that of xenophobic political leaders, who have been in the news far too much recently,” wrote Iain Levine, director of programs for Human Rights Watch, in a July 9 dispatch.“Many fans have been keen to point out that these European teams would not have been able to get within touching distance of the World Cup trophy without the benefits of immigration.”

Jeffery Miles is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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