Shibuya, Tokyo June 25th, 5am
Four years ago on a humid early summer morning I woke up about 4am and checked the World Cup scores, reading that Japan had defeated Denmark to advance to the next round. I got on my bicycle and rode down to Shibuya to explore the reaction. You would have thought by the celebration that they'd won the World Cup itself, or that a cure for cancer had been discovered, or that everyone had discovered true love finally and were dancing in the street. But it was a mere soccer victory against an average opponent in the first round. And yet it was absolute bedlam.
Absolutely, I understand that being proud of your country is important, but nevertheless I've always found it extraordinarily silly to associate your country's greatness via a group of overpaid athletes outperforming another country's group of overpaid athletes. I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, which was a very good decade to be a sports fan, the Lakers, Dodgers, and Raiders taking home multiple championships. Los Angeles even held the Olympics in 1984. But these victories did not make me proud of my hometown so much. However glorious the Lakers dynasty was it did nothing for the city's congestion, crime, drug abuse, unequal housing, spiraling education costs, discrimination, police brutality, civic corruption or anything else that makes a city safe, livable, and respectable.
The World Cup, like the Olympics, channels its citizens' nationalism into something less dangerous than militant activism. Nevertheless, the competition reduces our emotions to "us" vs. "them," victory at any cost so that in our zeal to win we often fail to appreciate the athletic finesse of the the oppositional team. And Japan defeating Denmark has nothing to do with Japan being better than Denmark. It's a game, nothing more, and no one else involved cares.
It can be fun subsuming your individuality within a larger group, at least for 90 minutes. So long as you remember that the World Cup is fun but that we're all in it together, humanity on earth, and that many of us are famished, without electricity, and hundreds of millions of us are under duress from the dramatic consequences of global warming. Collaborating on these crises successfully would be the greater miracle than your favorite underdog winning it all on the soccer green.