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The Uncivil Servant: A Jewish Progressive’s Guide to the World Cup

Mitchell Abidor
June 11, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor Earth SoccerFor the next month, from June 12 – July 13, the world will be watching the soccer World Cup in Brazil, a quadrennial event that draws more viewers than any other sporting event in the world. Increasing numbers of Americans are also drawn to it, and the press has been full of articles helping viewers work through the 32 teams filed to choose one to root for. Which team should a progressive Jew support? Of the 736 players on the rosters, there’s only one Jew, Kyle Beckerman of the U.S. — but three of the four countries with the largest Jewish populations in the world, the U.S., France, and Argentina, are participating, so those might be the countries to choose from as a “home team.” The tie-breaker among them is their Jewish histories — which eliminates France and puts Argentina in a bad position. While Argentina has never seen anything of the magnitude of France’s Vichy years, the recent history of the Dirty War and the especial brutality visited on Jewish prisoners (see Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number) reveals the depth and venom of Argentine anti-Semitism. For Jews asking, “Is it good for the Jews?” the U.S. looks to be the easy winner. As progressives, however, we view the question more broadly, and the team that can be dismissed immediately is the U.S. The World Cup is the one event we can be confident the U.S. will not win, and there’s always a certain amount of pleasure at seeing the U.S., which lords it over the rest of the world in all other areas, get their comeuppance at the hands of Ghana, a country most Americans couldn’t find on a map if it was written in capital letters. I so enjoyed the U.S. team’s elimination at the hands of Ghana four years ago that I remember exactly where I was and who I was with. For its imperial pretentions, its rotten internal politics, and its mockery of the rest of the world’s interest in soccer — The Beautiful Game — the U.S. is the first nation that progressives should not only not root for, but should actively root against. The European nations in the Cup fare hardly better. The rise of extreme rightwing parties — England’s UKIP and the Front National in France — allow us to eliminate those two immediately. The bully of Europe, Germany, is also off the list, and it’s a shame that Greece, which deserves a certain amount of support because of the left-wing party Syriza’s continued strength, won’t get a chance to play Germany and exact their revenge for the austerity they suffer under. Spain is not a noxious choice, but it remains a monarchy with a conservative government; Portugal, too, is not a horror, but not a beacon of progress. Italy, which has inflicted Berlusconi on itself and the rest of the world, is not even worthy of a glance, and poor, split Belgium, with its right-wing Flemings and its inability to form governments, is best left alone. The Netherlands, despite its reputation for openness, is still home to strong anti-immigrant sentiment. The less said about the rest of Europe the better: Russia, which after destroying the idea of socialism continues to make itself a blight on the face of the earth? Croatia? Bosnia-Herzegovina? Switzerland? Left-wing fans need to leave the Old World and seek elsewhere. Africa is a den of corruption, both in politics and soccer (just days ago the team from Cameroon refused to get on its plane for Brazil in a fight over unpaid bonuses!), so we can safely ignore their representatives — though Algeria, the product of one of the great liberation wars of the post-war world, deserves half-hearted support. Their fight was great, their people heroic, but the country’s history since independence in 1962 is lamentable. We must move on. Nothing much for progressives to root for when it comes to Australia, with its strong anti-immigrant bias and horrendous treatment of the aboriginals, or Japan or Korea, the most capitalist of capitalist nations, the latter having the added negative fillip of the growing strength of evangelical Christianity. We are left with Latin America — but corrupt Mexico and Colombia, and poor Honduras, Ecuador and Costa Rica, are safely cast aside as candidates, at least until their populations can afford a ticket to their stadium without worrying about feeding their children. We are now down to our final four: Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Chile, of course, was the home of the greatest and most noble of periods of the past half-century, Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, but nothing is left of that, and there still lurk supporters of Pinochet. Argentina has a nominally leftwing government, but only nominally: As hard times fall on the country, it is the working class that is paying the price. So we are left with only two countries, both with impressive credentials. The presidents of both Brazil and Uruguay are former guerrilla fighters who spent years in jail for their beliefs and have carried out a progressive agenda while in office. But Dilma Rouseff in Brazil has become too enamored of showing off her country at the expense of her country’s people, building stadiums when what Brazil really needs is schools and hospitals. The Brazilian people have turned against her and the World Cup project, leading many to fear for what might happen in the country during the tournament. Despite Rousoff’s credentials and the generally impressive performance of the Workers’ Party, therefore, we are left with one country standing for progressives: Uruguay, where the first World Cup was played in 1930. Uruguay, with its president Jose Mujica, who was leader of the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-Tupamaros; who spent fourteen years in prison; who still lives in the same tiny house in the farthest reaches of Montevideo he lived in before being elected; who donates 90 percent of his salary to charity; who drives a VW Beetle and a motor scooter; who spoke at the UN against the depredations of world capitalism; whose Frente Amplio has transformed the country into one where gays can marry, people can smoke pot legally, and a forward-looking program has given the Uruguayan people a better life and should give leftists everywhere hope, is the one. And here’s the beauty of rooting for Uruguay: the team, commonly called Los Celestes (The Sky-Blues), is a great one, and it’s not impossible that it might win. And wouldn’t victory be a nice thing for an American progressive to be part of? Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’s Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.