The 2018 FIFA World Cup (only the world’s biggest sports competition) is starting today in Russia. Fans from all over the world will be tuning in to watch the 32 teams representing their countries as they compete for global glory. It was a huge blow to U.S. fans, media, and sponsors that the United States did not qualify, as many assume that our absence would make the tournament less relevant to Americans. But with the NBA season over and baseball in the dog days of summer, a World Cup without the red, white, and blue actually presents an amazing opportunity for potential fans to connect with the sport on a deeper level. Curious Americans who don’t currently follow soccer can connect with the game in a way that’s more sustainable than the blind patriotism we often see during the Olympics and World Cup, which doesn’t really create new fans of the sport itself.
More specifically for us black folks who haven’t traditionally participated in soccer and have a complex relationship with the star spangled banner, this World Cup (without the U.S.) presents us with an unheralded opportunity to discover a global sport that reflects our own culture and history much more than we may have realized. What made Marvel’s Black Panther so powerful was not just that it shed a long overdue positive light on Africa and highlighted its diversity, but that it revived our African spirit through its presentation and texture. It allowed African Americans, some for the first time, to see more clearly our intrinsic connection to the motherland, giving us a sense of ownership and empowerment in the rich history and culture slavery separated us from.
As someone who is relatively new to watching soccer growing up I always assumed it wasn’t a “black sport,” yet when I started following I was amazed at how many black players there are at the highest level and seeing all our African cultures represented on the field ignited my sense of pride (much like Black Panther did). Most importantly though, discovering the world of soccer allowed me to connect to so much more of our history and shattered the many preconceived notions I had about black people and the world's biggest sport.
I’m writing this guide to share the joy of soccer with all my brothas and sistas who might not currently be following and are looking for rooting interests, narratives, and black culture tie-ins we can relate to during the 2018 World Cup.
Let’s get into it!
Photo: BlackArrowFC | World Cup 2014
1. COUNTRIES TO ROOT FOR
First of all, the French National Team is black as hell. Let me say that one more time. The FRENCH national team is BLACK.AS.HELL. If you haven’t been keeping up with soccer over the years, you might be surprised to find out that France has the most black players in the World Cup outside of the two sub-Saharan African teams, Nigeria and Senegal. A whopping 17 of the 23-man squad has African roots, 9 of whom are expected to be in the starting 11. And did I mention they are potentially one of the best teams ever assembled? (Don’t @ me)
So, why are there so many black folks on the French national team? If you recall, France was one of the biggest colonizers of Africa and the Caribbean. As you can imagine, the blackness of the team has been a source of controversy for the French nationalists who don’t like seeing their team made up of nothing but brothas. According to The Guardian, after France’s 1998 World Cup win, “not only did the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen complain of too many black people in the team, a leading Socialist regional head, the late Georges Frêche, was expelled from his party in 2007 for making the same observation.” To that, I say, the World Cup team selection process is largely a meritocracy - only the most talented players make the cut. Just sayin.
Belgium is another team that has hella black players on their squad. Hands down, they have one of the most stacked teams in the world. Each year, the professional league of Belgium (“Belgian First Division A”) gives out an award to the best player of African descent. Similar to the Golden Glove in baseball, the Belgian league titles this award the “Ebony Boot,” which is amazing for so many reasons. One of the recent winners of that award is Michy Batshuayi, aka “Batman,” whom you might want to follow on Instagram because he is constantly swagged out like he just came off a Young Thug video shoot. But the number one reason for black folks to support Belgium this World Cup is none other than Romelu Lukaku, who was born in Belgium to Congolese parents and most recently signed with Rocnation Sports. Lukaku was one of the top soccer players in the English Premier League this season, and despite being the target of over-criticism by English fans and even fans of his own team Manchester United, he continued to score goals and throw up the Roc, all while handling racist taunts with class and professionalism.
Photo: Romelu Lukaku | Matthew Powers
Nigeria is going be the most obvious rooting interest for us in this World Cup, especially since their jersey with Nike transcended the sport into fashion and music (more on that later). Nigeria is often the popular culture leader in Africa as seen by the explosive popularity of Afrobeats. Yes, the Afrobeats artists you are two-stepping to at ya woke day parties are most likely Nigerian. Think, Wiz Kid, Davido, and Mr. Eazi, just to name a few. When Nigeria scores a goal in the World Cup, look out for some serious dance moves and LIT celebrations. If you’re thankful for the rise of Afrobeats like I am, why not support the Naija Super Eagles?
With the World Cup being played in Russia, one of the biggest concerns for FIFA is the racism and violence perpetrated by Russian “hooligans,” a term used to describe hardcore soccer fans that often start flights and create chaos. With that context in mind, one of the most intriguing backstories of the entire World Cup is the inclusion of a player named Brian Idowu on the Nigerian national team. Idowu was born in Russia and is, well, Russian. His mother is half Russian and half Nigerian and his father is Nigerian. He was born and raised in Russia and plays professionally in the Russian Premier League. Because of his father, Idowu was able to qualify to play for Nigeria and frankly, I’m not sure the Russian team would have stomached the optics of selecting him for their squad. Also, touché to the Nigerian coach for this shrewd move of recruiting Idowu - having someone who has played in Russia and speaks the local language can go along way in helping the Nigerian squad acclimate to the tense racial climate in Russia.
2. FOR THOSE OF YOU EXPERIENCING NBA WITHDRAWALS
Messi vs. Ronaldo, an NBA-like battle of the Titans.
Even if you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you know the names Lionel Messi from Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal. They are arguably two of the most famous athletes in the world and have undeniably dominated the soccer headlines over the last decade. The best way to get up to speed is to think of Messi as the Steph Curry of soccer, and Ronaldo as Lebron. Messi and Ronaldo have striking similarities to their NBA counterparts - from their size, game, personal brands, all the way down to how they are perceived by the media, debated by fans, and are constantly battling for the same title year after year.
Messi is Steph Curry
Turn on Argentina during the World Cup and within seconds you’ll be able to spot Messi. Like Steph with a basketball, Messi with a soccer ball is nothing short of beautiful wizardry. He is undersized but makes up for it with his sheer skill, speed, creativity, and tenacity, keeping defenders on their toes and doing moves that would otherwise only belong on the playground. Also, like Steph, no one else in soccer can pull off the humble brag like Messi, who dominates opponents while keeping the aura of being a family man and wins fans over with his common man appeal.
Ronaldo is Lebron
In juxtaposition to Messi, is Cristiano “Lebron” Ronaldo, who has the prototypical soccer body and what many consider to be a polarizing swagger to his game and personality. Ronaldo plays a physical game but has adjusted with age and is constantly reinventing (and improving) himself. He always plays with speed and power and has the skill and work ethic to match, just like Lebron, arguably making him the best soccer player of all time. Ronaldo, too, has a reputation for being a tough teammate because he expects the most of his team and is in constant pursuit of greatness and winning, thereby keeping him in the limelight and making him the man many soccer fans love to hate and hate to love.
Like Steph and Lebron, Messi and Ronaldo are constantly battling each other in the biggest games, seemingly don’t like each other (or at least that’s how the media portrays it), and are both coming up on what may be their final World Cup appearance and looking for their first win. Without the United States in the tournament, you can be certain Fox will be pushing this narrative so the Steph/Lebron comparison is an easy one for newbie fans to connect with.
3. OUR AFRO-LATINO BRETHREN
During the last World Cup, fans were surprised to see so many players of African descent on the Honduran national team. The disconnect between African Americans and Afro-Latinos seems silly when you realize that the slave ships from Africa didn't just come to the United States; they also landed in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Moreover, our African brothers and sisters in these regions faced the same racism and poverty as we did in the United States. Did you know that Brazil has the highest population in the world of people of African descent outside of Africa, and Colombia has the fifth highest?
One of the best players in Peru’s history was an Afro-Peruvian guy by the name of Teófilo Cubillas, aka El Nene (“The Kid”). Often referred to as the Peruvian Pele, Cubillas was a baby-faced brotha that looked like he could’ve been hanging out with Shaft in the 70s. There are over 1.2 million Afro-Peruvians and they comprise a community that has its own distinct food, music, and culture.
Upon a quick glance of Peru’s 2018 World Cup team, you’ll notice a fair number of players of African descent. Peru has a handful of brothas who straight up look like they might’ve just flown into Russia from Detroit, including star winger Jefferson Farfán whose performance will be key to Peru’s success.
And, in honor of black folks always tryna free one homie or another, the team captain and star player Paulo Guerrero was cleared to play in the tournament just last month after fighting a ban imposed for testing positive for cocaine after consuming coca tea. Coca tea is consumed as part of an ancient Peruvian ritual, and the entire country rallied around Guerrero as he was close to sitting out Peru’s first World Cup since 1982. His case was given a positive jolt when the captains of all three of Peru’s group stage opponents sent letters to Switzerland’s Supreme Court, the body that intervened with FIFA on Guerrero’s behalf. But the blackest thing to happen in the World Cup qualifiers was when Guerrero’s teammates showed up to warm up wearing “Fuerza Paolo” shirts, ones that look just like the joints you would get made at the Eastmont Mall in Oakland. Free Meek Guerrero!
The Afro-Panamanian community was brought to Panama during the construction of the Panama canal, with many coming from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. The first reason for black folks to pull for Panama is that this is their first-ever appearance in the 88-year history of the World Cup. The team is filled with Afro-Panamanian players, many of whom are playing professionally in the MLS. They edged their way into the tournament at the tail end of qualifiers, with the combination of the 87th-minute goal from captain Roman Torres (look out for his dreads) that pushed them past Costa Rica and the U.S.’s unexpected loss to Trinidad. Panama is undoubtedly the biggest underdog story of the 2018 World Cup.
While they might be one of the lowest ranked teams in the tournament, Panama has so much to play for, as they will be carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire country in love with the sport of soccer. Their roster is made up of aging players who have been grinding their entire careers to get their country to this moment. Midfielder Amílcar Henríquez, who was a regular presence in the squad for more than a decade, was recently shot and killed outside his home, so emotions will be riding high for the country of Panama on June 19th when they face the heavily favored Belgian team.
4. FASHION KILLA
Flossiest Kits (a “kit” refers to the standard soccer uniform)
Forget the players, forget the history, forget the ethnicity or nationalities, turn on the World Cup and jump on a team’s bandwagon based on how dope you think their jerseys are. Japan has a fresh one, Senegal’s is poppin’, and Croatia’s red and white checkered kit has been a fan favorite throughout the years. Colombia’s jersey has a neon yellow hue that really stands out and the Brazil kit is probably the most adopted jerseys around the world. But the winner for the flossiest kit is, without a doubt, Nigeria. Even if you don’t know anything about soccer or fashion, chances are you’ve seen or heard about the Nigerian national team’s jersey. Nike had over 3 million pre-orders even before they went on sale, and when they finally did go on sale, they sold out in a matter of minutes! Once you peep the Naija uniform, it’s easy to understand why this kit broke the fashion internet - it’s colorful, wild, loud and proud, and overall DOPE. One thing’s for sure, Nigeria will be the best-dressed team on the pitch.
Hair Game Proper
Paul Pogba has about as many hairstyles as Kanye has personalities. If you recall, Pogba is one of the best and most standout players for France. If his sheer athleticism wasn’t enough, his diverse array of haircuts and hairstyles are another reason we should pay attention to this silky smooth player. Matter of fact, Pogba’s so steezy, I wouldn’t be surprised if he flew his barber to Russia so he has a new look every time he takes the field.
Keep this guide in mind and you'll get through the World Cup like a champ.
Research Credit - Brandon Brown, Jane Lee