The news this week that FIFA voted unanimously to expand the men’s World Cup field from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026 is maybe hard to take without diving into an automatic mode of cynicism. As with anything and everything FIFA does, decides, and instigates, you have to take the angle that this will provide more inclusion for nations outside of UEFA and CONMEBOL with a Cadillac sized-grain of salt (or maybe gold?).
The World Cup is, absolutely, the centerpiece competition of the sport historically, politically, and financially.1 And of course every nation wants to be able to compete in the Most Prestigious Sporting Event on Earth™. Many arguments floating around in favor of the bump to 48 teams center on this inclusion – which, even if more nations involved equals more placated association heads equals more votes for Infantino to stay in charge, remains a completely valid point. Productive and greatly needed, even (maybe).
What I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how this prestige is constructed and curated over time. How sepia-toned photographs of club-booted gentlemen kicking heavy leather balls are blended with a dash of gold and a touch of Pelé to cement a foundation of gravitas for the competition. A significant currency of the World Cup as (positive) spectacle is this narrative of prestige, which in turn powers (or perhaps, is powered by) a mechanism of nostalgia. We need to grapple with this term, because beyond its connotation in the baseball, apple pie, Chevrolet context, nostalgia also functions as what Svetlana Boym describes as “a symptom of our age, an historical emotion.”2
When you boil down nostalgia even to its etymology, (the Greek roots nostos, meaning “return home,” and algia, “longing”) you get something hitting on the longing for a home that no longer exists and no longer existed, a feeling that’s human enough to be broadly legible, I think. Perhaps a more interesting dimension of nostalgia is how it swells outward, tying the individual experience to historical narrative, transforming personal to collective memory.
On some level, those pangs of nostalgia that sneak up on us when we look at a yellowed photograph of our parents as children, or watch a flickering video of a mid-century Brazil samba-ing its opponent off the pitch, or even creak through an old hallway, thinking vaguely something happened here a long time ago, are projections of our very essential desire to attach our subjectivity, our history, to History proper. The reasons for this urge are complicated and deep-running (maybe the deepest-running, save for man, I really need to reproduce like, NOW), although I am partial to the argument that the constantly churning wheel of Capitalist Modernity dislodges and alienates us as individuals from a sense of belonging, from a sanctuary of home. I don’t mean to flip into my Marxist mode, but then again I sort of do. Boym herself doesn’t explicitly pin this process on the development of Capitalism, but I don’t think it’s a mis-jump to go there.
Soccer – international soccer specifically, but certainly history-drenched clubs as well – uses the desire to re-build a home (that never existed in the first place, either physically or temporally) as a wildly successful promotional tool. As Boym writes: “promise to rebuild the ideal home lies at the core of many powerful ideologies today, tempting us to relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding.”3
This, alongside gold-plated economics4is an idea/feeling/vague pull at the core of today’s globalized game. What an expanded World Cup offers destabilized/colonized/disaffected/disenfranchised nations and peoples is the chance to “rebuild home” and construct a national identity through and within the machinery of globalized soccer, tempting them to buy into the symbolism and perceived value of the World Cup, without considering negative implications. The pull of nostalgia tends to confuse (or paper over) the actual home with the imaginary (and fabricated), for the sake of which one is ready “to die or kill.” Don’t buy it? Fine, but tell that to the thousands of people displaced by authorities in South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014, and the slave labor pouring hot concrete in Qatar.
Maybe I’m overthinking5 or grasping at straws where there are only FIFA slush funds. Maybe this is simply and honestly a way to expand the game into corners of the globe more or less precluded from participating on the brightest stages. Maybe it’s just another way to make a lot6 of money. What’s interesting, though, is the (largely) European backlash to Infantino’s expansion. A quick read would suggest this is because the new plan threatens some sort of Euro hegemony over the idea tournament configuration which – c’mon. I’m sympathetic (and largely agree, actually) with arguments that the three-team groups will create a less exciting product, and that from a competitive standpoint, these changes really aren’t in the best service of the sporting side of the game.
I think nostalgia is to some degree responsible for the European response to the change. A way of life (home, if you want to call it that) is being threatened by the development of an inherently late capitalistic institution, and those who fear destabilization the most (ahem, Europe) are retreating into a sense of nostalgia, of the way things used to be. Ironically then, this monetized nostalgia is a factor both for ascending (or, newly included) nations as well as established soccer giants. The wheel of progress grinds on, making nobody really that pleased, aside from the goblins at FIFA’s gold vaults.