I don't know what to do with the World Cup this summer. It's probably my favorite sporting event, but for the first time since I started watching or learning about it in 1994, I don't have a team to support. Neither the United States - where I was born and where I live - nor Italy - where I lived for four years of my life - will make the trip to Russia.
In fact, most people I spoke to express this sentiment. Even if a team's games represent between 5 (worst case) and 10 (best case) percent of the total played, there is a risk that they will all become meaningless if that team is not there. But maybe that's not so bad after all. Perhaps free from the traditional constraints of collective identity and fandom, here is an opportunity for a more personal and potentially more interesting connection. Of course, this approach comes with its challenges. Where to start?
Select a Random Team
I could easily follow in the footsteps of many American fans of European football and simply choose a team whose jersey or name I particularly like, then put together an elaborate but watertight backstory that proves my authenticity, even if I don't. I've only played FIFA so far have seen.
But I've done that before and with national teams it's a bit different, it's much less the global brands clubs have become, many with much bigger fanbases outside of their own city or even from their own country. It seems too fragile to me and at 33, I don't even own a console anymore.
The Cultural and Socio-political Aspect
As I write this, my apartment is surrounded by Swedish furniture and music, English novels, tea and cookies, South Korean electronics, a Japanese clock and Portuguese beer. (Choosing your favorite beer would be a very easy way to choose a team, a strategy that has taken me to Newcastle and Liverpool in the past).
It's incredibly easy and probably dangerous to bring politics into the conversation. Easy because there are so many teams you could easily protest against, but dangerous because I would have to admit that with the same approach, based on recent events, I wouldn't support Italy or the United States. Still, it's fun to think that a loss to Iran could lead to more nuclear concessions, or that a global spotlight on Russia could reveal even more nefarious things.
If there's one team the Americans should really be pitted against, it's Morocco, as any success could bolster their competitive bid for the 2026 World Cup. But protest squads are no support at all, and if ever there was a time that required a break from politics would certainly be now.
For all the woes with the World Cup, it remains a rare showcase of inclusion, diversity and intense patriotism, two ideologies often seen as rivals. So maybe I should leave it at that.
Root for a Specific Player
This is easy, as there are plenty of interesting stories to follow and individual performances to keep an eye out for. Can Lionel Messi finally win something with Argentina? How far can Mohamed Salah (hopefully) take Egypt? Will Paul Pogba recover from a difficult year? Can Neymar come back from injury to lead Brazil to victory after a home defeat four years ago? These are just the most obvious.
So, none of this has really gotten me anywhere, and if anything, I'm more stressed now than I was to begin with. The infinite possibilities seem overwhelming, and each loaded with implications. In a last-ditch effort, I tried to rid myself of the idea of choice that had been so appealing at first and trace my family line back to England, but that didn't lessen the guilt of the growing realization that my world might was too English. and Eurocentric. By forcing my narrative on the tournament, am I not as bad as those commentators I wish they would keep quiet about?
Perhaps the best idea is to let go of all that is weird and come in not with a plan but a void and let the show unfold and tell its own story. And even if that means remaining undecided until the very end, what could be more dramatic than that?