We won! I mean, the French team won. You know, the World Soccer Cup.
I was in France when the event happened. For the semi-finals, in a café in Paris – and for the final, on the Riviera in a beach club room equipped for the occasion with a gigantic screen. We were packed like sardines in a can. A lot of painted blue, white, red cheeks. The supporters included my daughter, husband, friends and a bunch of strangers in bathing suits.
It was intense, hot and fun. And for me, it was also slightly uncomfortable.
Often when these important soccer events occur, I feel torn.
On the one hand, I love being part of the collective exaltation; I love the enthusiasm around the same not-complicated goal. I love the social diversity of a crowd gathered in a public space.
On the other hand, I watch the crowd for manifestations of superiority and excessive national pride; I fear any sign of exclusionary behaviors – which is ironic in a world sports event that automatically creates an exclusionary situation of “us versus them”. I fear xenophobia – explicit or implicit.
During the world cup, there was this slogan, amongst others, that French supporters would chant -well yell- altogether: “Who doesn’t jump isn’t French”! And they would all jump. I found the slogan offensive, as if the only way to cheer the team was to be French and to behave as the group did. Otherwise, you were an outsider. I didn’t jump as a demonstration of my free-will.
My friends thought I took the slogan way too seriously and wondered if my demonstration of free-will wasn’t rather a demonstration of my own pride and inability to be playful along with everyone else.
I thought that my overall discomfort was probably coming from my Jewish background and an old fear of being targeted and ostracized – and/or of belonging nowhere.
My friends were right that I take collective togetherness very seriously. I love it and I dread it. I seek it and I avoid it.
In July 1989, Paris was celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution in spectacular fashion.
The peak event was an official parade organized on the Champs-Elysées by the publicist Goude and choreographer Decouflé. The parade theme was honoring “culture mix for those who have never paraded:” Blacks, “Beurs” (= second generation Arab North Africans) and infantrymen from Senegal. It was about Liberté, Egalité, Fratenité. It was humorous, colorful, audacious, inclusive and political – in a noble way. It had never happened before. The American Black soprano Jessy Norman closed the show by singing “La Marseillaise” in a blue, white and red dress. Everybody was there! Except me. College was over and I think I had nobody to hang out with on that day. I was at home in my suburban town, watching the parade on TV. I was fidgeting in my living room because I wasn’t there, with the crowd. I almost took the train to Paris, but the whole idea was too outside my comfort zone. Besides, it was late and I was already in pajamas. I got lazy and stayed home.
In January 2015, I would have gone to Paris even in pajamas, but I was at home this time in California, watching everything on the internet. Paris was holding an immense demonstration. Everybody was there again -liberals, conservatives and those with no political affiliation. All standing up for the same three words of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, but this time with grief and sadness, not celebration. It was right after the Charlie-Hebdo attack and people wanted to express their refusal to be terrorized by fear. I wished I’d been there.
So, in March 2017, I wouldn’t have missed the Women’sMarch for anything in the world! I mean, the one in San Francisco near to my home. The crowd was friendly and convivial. The city was breathing through the people – the people were the city. I love to rub shoulders with like-minded people, although I can’t help but look for the dangers of moral superiority and righteousness in a non-diverse political gathering. Therefore, a few hours were enough for me.
After the world cup 2018, even though I didn’t jump, I couldn’t stop analyzing and conversing with my friends about the French victory. This allowed me to make my own contribution as a supporter of the team. Our debrief was instructive:
1- The French coach didn’t choose the best players. He chose the best players who could play together. The ones capable of momentarily removing their egos and sacrificing the spotlight in order to facilitate the game of others. He strongly believed that the spirit of the whole team would win.
2- The ethnic diversity of the team was striking. 17 of the 23 players were the sons of first generation emigrants. For these players especially, it meant a lot to be French and win for France. After a few years of emigration crisis, terror attacks and terrorism threats in the country, it also meant a lot for supporters to put aside the uncertainty of the world, and believe in the success of a diverse and interconnected team, even just for a few hours.
The debrief made me humble. If sport by nature has the potential to divide, objectify and radicalize, it also has the potential to unify, humanize, and exemplify the values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. As a supporter and observer, I can create my own experience. I don’t need to exclude myself from the group exaltation because I fear exclusionary deviances. I don’t need to jump – I don’t need to not jump. I can enjoy the miracle of being part of millions of human beings coming peacefully together to share a remarkable performance.
So be it in the world cup 2022!
Note: It happened that I was reading Brené Brown’s book Braving the wilderness during the World Cup. She sums it up well when she says that to resolve our love love hate tensions with humankind, we have to “show up for collective moments of joy and pain so we can actually bear witness to inextricable human connection.” It’s a great book!