The World Cup and its metaphors


In his book "Geopolitics of Sport", Pascal Boniface warns that "Malraux was wrong, the 21st century will not be religious, it will above all be sporting". This may be true, but what is certain is that the 21st century is bringing the culture of sport to its peak. The extraordinary mediatisation of international sporting competitions is the most striking proof of this. Major international sporting competitions, which are highly mediatised, play important roles in international relations, are at the same time distorting mirrors, sounding boards and fields of confrontation between powers. So it seems credible to ask whether sporting interest is still the only source of motivation for the participating countries and whether the fact that major international sporting competitions become issues of power and communication for states allows sport to explain the world.  In this context it suffices to recall as an example that Nation Branding and Soft Power in the case of Korea, Russia, Australia or China played a crucial role in international relations through sport. The growing popularity of football has also made the game more than just a sport. The latter has been used to stimulate the economic growth of cities or countries, in order to improve relations with states or to increase the influence of some of them. 

Lately we have witnessed one of the most mediatised sporting events on the planet. The Football World Cup, which took place in Qatar, was a true demonstration of the place of sport in the global geopolitical arena today, and especially of the extraordinary notoriety of football, the most popular sport in many countries, including Morocco.

Perhaps it is no longer worth asking why the Qataris were so keen to host the 2022 World Cup, it is clear that this World Cup is representative of Qatar's status on the international stage.  The Emirate has invested in the most expensive World Cup in history, with an estimated cost of more than 220 billion dollars, with the double objective of increasing its diplomatic influence and fostering its economic development, betting heavily on the policy of Soft Power through sport. 

Once again soft power has proven in the Qatar World Cup to be a compelling justificatory logic from which a range of 'public diplomacy' programmes can be defended and implemented, from media-based positioning to nation branding. Most notably in this regard, decoding the mechanisms of soft power reveals how football is effectively employed in the construction of national identity and concepts of collectivity and exclusivity, and how the 'attraction' of football can be harnessed to achieve foreign policy ends of enhancing the country's credibility, influencing media representation and establishing stronger links with foreign audiences. 

The use of public diplomacy as a lever of international influence necessarily requires the use of rhetoric as a tool to persuade and seduce world opinion. The dazzling demonstration is that the World Cup in Qatar, the most watched event on the planet, was not only a feast of goals and surprises, it was also a festival of metaphors, a huge display of rhetoric among players, coaches and audiences, even among some eloquent commentators, as was also the case with politicians. 

Generally speaking, we can say that the universal popularity of football is not accidental and cannot be explained solely by social factors or some historical contingency; its popularity is due to the very metaphorical nature of the football match as a spectacle based on the agonistic opposition between two sides supported by militants who want to influence, through their mimetic participation, the course and outcome of the confrontation. The game is experienced as a metaphor offering, through its theatricalisation effect and its instrumental device, a privileged field for the affirmation of a series of values, which the fans express through ritualised forms. The main registers from which this verbal and gestural rhetoric of the sympathiser draws are the symbolic fields of war, life, death and sex. 

The team is described in football rhetoric as an army corps, with its captain, its strategist, its attackers, its defenders and its movements on the wings. As for the journalistic commentaries, they are impregnated with military terms and metaphors, there is talk of "charging", of "conquering the ball", of "attack", of "cannon fire", of "bombardment of goals", of "retreat" and of "defensive walls" ... in short, a real sublimated ritual of war. 

In this same context, and although it is not the first time that the issue of human rights has created controversy during the World Cup (such as in Argentina in 1978 or in Russia in 2018), rarely has a country generated so much controversy before hosting a World Cup.  The choice of Qatar at the end of 2010 over the United States has been widely commented on. The avalanche of journalistic criticism the country faced in the Western media for hosting the tournament dealt a lot with money, ecology and human rights. In this respect the most striking headline in terms of rhetoric was published by The Guardian claiming that "this World Cup has taken place in a crime scene". For his part, Gianni Infantino, the president of the International Football Federation (FIFA), when he raised his voice at a press conference in Doha, warned about the metaphorical confusion in this regard, clarifying that "we are having a World Cup, not a war" and did not hesitate to criticise the "hypocrisy" of the Western world, nor did he avoid resorting to the rhetoric of influence by declaring "Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel like a migrant worker". 

Among several headlines that resorted to the rhetorical device to cover the World Cup in Qatar, I distinguish the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, which, for its use of analogy as a rhetorical weapon of contempt and mockery towards the adversary, described the Moroccan national team as "a real United Nations team", referring in an analytical article to the inclusion of 14 players born outside the country in the list of the Atlas Lions, as if the historical existence of players born outside Spain and then nationalised to defend the shirt of La Roja (Kubala, Puskas, Di Stéfano, Heredia, Donato, Pizzi, Catanha, Diego Costa and others) did not pose for this newspaper any problem of national representation. The issue is very simple and deeply significant, it is about some players from the Moroccan diaspora who preferred to "play for the country of their parents and grandparents" or as the Moroccan international Achraf Hakimi put it with a perfect metaphor when he declared that he preferred to "opt for the choice of the heart". 

In this World Cup we have also seen how footballers celebrated in Qatar in different metaphorical ways their feelings of euphoria and joy, sadness and disappointment, from the tears of the Portuguese striker Cristiano Rolando to the controversial obscene gesture made in front of the whole world by the goalkeeper of the Argentinean national team Dibu Martinez, to the Moroccan striker Soufian Boufal dancing with his mother in the middle of the pitch, after the historic semi-final qualification against Portugal, and, of course, that image loaded with the rhetoric of silence, that of French president Emmanuel Macron after France's defeat against Argentina in the World Cup final, trying for a long time to console the French striker Kylian Mbappé sitting on the pitch, staring into the void and not even seeming to hear him. 

Perhaps Morocco's coach Walid Regragui was undoubtedly the champion of the World Cup coaches in the field of rhetoric. Calm, confident and reassuring, Walid Regragui kept repeating to the press, the Moroccan public and the sceptics: "Dirou niya! Have faith and belief... the niya is the key to victory". What the national coach popularised by calling "Niya" (Arabic for faith and firm belief) is nothing other than that confidence that can move mountains, perhaps a kind of positive energy that is contagious, or perhaps it is a component of the law of attraction that consists of believing in the power of the link between our thoughts, our expectations and reality. Thus, when it comes to mobilising his troops, Regragui shows that he really has mastered the codes of good communication. 

We also recall that Spain coach Luis Enrique, after losing to Morocco, had to resort to a rhetorical question to tell us that he was impressed by the performance of Azzedine Ounahi: "Oh my God, where did that boy come from? He plays very well", certainly the former coach of La Roja did not take long to learn that Ounahi came from the Mohammed VI Football Academy in Sale, where other Moroccan internationals such as En-Nesyri himself have also come from. 

The World Cup in Qatar offered us another opportunity to see the constant and uniform treatment of Morocco by certain Spanish press, the least that can be said about it is that we are still facing a deplorable journalism with too much obsession and too little professionalism, because while the international press in its treatment of the result of the match between Morocco and Spain, publishes objective and transparent headlines that fulfill the function of informing the reader, some Spanish newspapers strive to reduce the Moroccan protagonism in their headlines as much as possible. Thus, for example, we can read in media such as Euronews, DW, The Guardian, The Japan Times, France24, BBC News, New York Times:  

  • Morocco eliminates Spain from Qatar World Cup 
  • Morocco's historic quarter-final qualification at the expense of Spain 
  • Morocco beat Spain on penalties  
  • Morocco beat Spain on penalties to reach quarter-finals  
  • Morocco Knocks Spain Out of the World Cup on Penalty Kicks  
  • Morocco knock out Spain on penalties to reach World Cup quarterfinals 

As for the Spanish press, an analysis of the syntactic structure of some headlines reveals that the information in question is Spain's defeat and not Morocco's triumph. In word order, Spain is the key word, as the following examples clearly show: 

  • Spain eliminated from Qatar World Cup in penalty shootout (Marca). 
  • The Spanish national team lost to Morocco in a penalty shoot-out and are eliminated from the World Cup (La Sexta). 
  • Spain's great fiasco is consummated in a disastrous penalty shootout against Morocco (El Mundo) 
  • The national team, dominant for 120 minutes, was unable to score a goal against a much inferior opponent (El Mundo) 
  • Spain lose to Morocco on penalties: Morocco's reactions and celebrations, last minute live coverage (La Vanguardia) 
  • Spain's elimination against Morocco at the Qatar World Cup (El Español) 
  • Spain don't know what to do with the ball and are eliminated against Morocco (El País) 
  • Spain crashes against the Moroccan wall and sinks in the penalties (El País) 
  • Penalties condemn Spain: out of the World Cup (ABC) 

Here, Spain is the subject of the information and the one who performs the action of the verb, even if it is an action of losing, while Morocco is only the indirect object that passively receives the action of the verb, the news is therefore not that Morocco beat Spain, but that Spain lost in front of Morocco.

The Algerian rhetoric regarding this World Cup is something else entirely, for while the whole world hails the performance of the Atlas Lions, Algerian national television has opted for censorship pure and simple, and the Algerian media apparatus, with no heart for noble passions, has set about censoring any light or lightness of touch, has set about censoring any light and shade of Morocco in the same way that the Stalinist regime falsified photographic images from which disgraced people were eliminated, thus offering us a truly typical case of pure and simple Soviet-style propagandist information.  

In this context, I do not forget to salute the Spanish television news channel 24 Horas, which distinguished itself with regard to Morocco by its professional news treatment, showing on screen titles such as:  

  • Morocco goes through to the quarter-finals for the first time after defeating us on penalties 
  • Morocco celebrates historic victory 
  • Morocco fans celebrated their victory at home and abroad 

There are many aspects that can encourage us to think of football as a metaphor for life, bringing into play rules and passions, hatred and jealousy, sweat and tears. It is a true mirror of reality, the reality whose voices deserve to be heard, the reality that the Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano wanted so much to hear, and as he tells in his book "El Futbol a sol y sombra", he wanted to hear what she tells, like a very crazy lady who talks day and night, and while she sleeps or pretends to sleep, in the hours of sleep and nightmare.