In November 2013, a capacity crowd of nearly 40,000 fans at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, Croatia celebrated one of the great moments for any team competing in international soccer: by defeating Iceland 2-0, the Croatian national team was among the last of 32 countries to qualify for the 2014 Men’s World Cup finals in Brazil. Amidst the ecstasy, someone made the fateful mistake of handing a microphone to Josip Šimunić.
As a hard-tackling defender for Croatia aged 35, this was almost certainly Šimunić’s last chance to play in a World Cup. Alone on the field but for a cameraman tracking his every move, Šimunić moved with an energy that belied his gangly 6’5” frame, receding hairline, and perpetual five o’clock shadow. As he gesticulated with the microphone, jersey in hand, he screamed to the crowd in a call-and-respond repeat “Za dom spremni” – “For the homeland!” In perfect and immediate synchrony, a large portion of the crowd responded “Ready!”
Unfortunately, Šimunić’s chant was also a clear reference to a hateful nationalist cry used by the fascist Ustase pro-Nazi regime that ruled Croatia during World War II. Šimunić protested innocence, relying on a defense of simple patriotism and claiming “some people have to learn some history.” Global soccer authorities disagreed, as he was suspended through the 2014 World Cup for his “discriminatory” act and never played for the Croatian national team again.
To make Šimunić’s story even more intriguing from a sociological perspective, his moment of nationalist frenzy followed a lifetime spent mostly nowhere near “the homeland.” Though Šimunić’s parents were Croatian, he was born and raised in Canberra, Australia and developed into a world class soccer player at the Australian Institute for Sport. Professionally, Šimunić spent the majority of his career playing in Germany, and in his personal life he married a “Canadian-Croat.” Though he ended his career with the Croatian professional team Dinamo Zagreb and spent several recent years as an assistant coach for the Croatian National Team, it is plausible to suggest that Šimunić’s emotional nationalism was not necessarily “for the homeland.” Instead, it may have been a way to make sense of splintered and imagined identities – types that powerfully shape our 21st century lives.
Šimunić’s story thus becomes less a morality tale and more a prompt for broader thinking about soccer, and the 2018 World Cup now underway in Russia, as a mirror and a lens—reflecting and refracting our social world in ways that both illuminate and distort how we understand our selves and others. The World Cup provides a rare combination of global attention and emotionally engaging spectacle—a combination that offers a unique perspective on critical issues such as nationalism and identity. Global sports mega-events derive at least some of their popularity from the rare opportunity to put usually imagined communities on display. Though United Nations meetings may be more consequential, they don’t make for particularly good television. The World Cup final, in contrast, draws enough viewers to make it the globe’s most broadly shared cultural experience.
That shared attention is then often framed by broad social narratives about the places and politics of World Cup hosts. To cite recent examples, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, as the first World Cup hosted in sub-Saharan Africa, became a forum for discussions about development and division—soccer’s global governing body FIFA trademarked the phrase “Celebrate Africa’s Humanity” as if there was something singular and unified about the humanity of that diverse continent. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil, particularly after massive 2013 street protests surrounding the Confederations Cup warm-up tournament, became about corruption and inequality. There are still regular news briefs about “white elephant” sporting facilities from both Brazil’s World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics—emblems of bread, circus, and massive profits for well-positioned elites. The 2018 World Cup cultivated narratives about hooliganism and racism that pervade an unfortunate proportion of the soccer landscape in Russia, while the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is already rife with attention to worker’s rights and religious tolerance.
During the month-long tournament itself, attention often shifts to narratives about the nations and identities represented through competition. As the British cultural historian Eric Hobsbawn famously (among soccer scholars) noted, “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” The start of a World Cup match, with eleven men from each side donning national colors and saluting their flag, is a powerful visual image of nationhood. But, like many such visual representations of identity, it is also often inaccurate. For one, the simple fact that the players who get the most global attention are men, despite the athletic accomplishments on display in the women’s World Cup, only starts to hint at the many questions about gender, masculinity, and sexuality embedded in global soccer. In addition, World Cup teams often visually present complex stories about race, class, and ethnicity—stories that vary by nation from the relative homogeneity of the Russian national team to the sometimes surprising diversity of teams such as Belgium.
The complexity of these narratives and the emotional nationalism of the World Cup is reflected in a final addendum to the Šimunić story. Since his banishment from the 2014 World Cup, and in a quest for exoneration, Šimunić collaborated on a documentary film titled Moja Vlojena Hrvatska—My Beloved Croatia—that argues his moment of nationalist fervor was an embodiment of noble pride rather than a hateful screed. The English language trailer for the film begins with the claim “Soccer, to Croats, is much more than just a game” and segues into interviews with Croatian World Cup players talking wistfully about the patriotic feelings of playing for their national team. Even Šimunić’s father, the Australian emigree, makes a tearful appearance describing his pride at seeing Josip in the distinctive red checked uniform of the Croatian national team.
It is, ultimately, an emotional jumble of personal concerns and public issues of the type that sociologists love to dissect and the World Cup seems ever-primed to provide. To really watch the World Cup, a more humble Šimunić might say, “some people have to learn some sociology.”
Andrew Guest teaches sociology and psychology at the University of Portland in Oregon. His research focuses on youth and community development, particularly as reflected in sports and activity programs. A longer version of this essay is available amidst his other occasional sports jottings at sportsandideas.tumblr.com.