WORLD CUP TALK: Only big winners in Germany protest, Japan victory

Germany players pose for a team group photo covering their mouths before their World Cup match against Japan.
Germany players pose for a team group photo covering their mouths before their World Cup match against Japan. (PHOTO: Reuters/Molly Darlington) (Molly Darlington / reuters)

IN THE age of the Orwellian sheep, everything is binary. The World Cup good, Fifa bad. Japan good, Germany bad. Graciousness good, protest bad. We’re living in an endless remake of Highlander. There can only be one.

So what are you waiting for? Pick a side and start shouting at each other.

It’s already begun, with anti-protest folks revelling in the schadenfreude of Japan’s unexpected triumph.

Take that, Germany. Bringing the politics of the school playground to a sporting event for grown-ups? Covering your mouths over Fifa’s gagging? Whatever next? Shoving fingers in Manuel Neuer’s ears and shouting “la-la-la-la-la” whenever Gianni Infantino picks up a microphone?

Next time, save the student politics for German town squares and stick to football. And then, Hansi Flick’s bleeding hearts might not suffer a second humiliation in the group stages. Japan won, Germany lost and everyone got their just deserts, especially Antonio Rudiger, who finds himself the whipping boy for the post-match gloating.

But in his case, it’s thoroughly deserved of course. His cartoonish villainy, showboating against Takuma Asano, was wonderfully stupid: proper, old-school s***housery that was swiftly dipped in a bucket of steaming schadenfreude.

That’s what we sign up for, heroes and villains playing to the gallery with wicked, over-the-top theatricality. But to apply the simplistic boo-cheer politics of pantomime to Germany’s pre-match protest is just that: simplistic and binary, and wrong.

The players’ unanimous decision to put their hands over their mouths to remind the world that they had been silenced by Fifa was just as uplifting a spectacle as Japan’s extraordinary comeback. And the image may live on longer in the memory – outside of Japan of course – for generations to come.

Just as the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics has outlasted the sporting events witnessed at the Mexico City Games, the meaning and power of the image lives on, its relevance undimmed by the passage of time.

The photograph of eleven angry men covering their mouths will be no different.

For context, Germany’s skipper Neuer said that the team wanted to remind a global audience that Fifa had stopped seven nations – including the Germans - from wearing a OneLove armband, which stands for tolerance, diversity and LGBTQ+ rights. The gagging order was unacceptable, according to Neuer.

And this is when the sheep bleating begins. Keep politics out of sport, they cry. Do not impose western values - whatever they are - on the Middle East. Leave Qatar alone. There are almost 70 countries that have laws that criminalise homosexuality – almost half of these countries are in Africa and one of them is Singapore - so ease off on the sanctimonious hypocrisy, eh?

And that’s precisely the moment when the argument falters, when one’s moral outrage is hitched to the wagon marked “hypocrisy”. Germany’s protest was about hypocrisy. It’s always been about the hypocrisy, but the nauseating version that spills out of Fifa HQ and trickles into the public domain, via the insufferable sewage filter that is Infantino.

Japan players celebrate scoring against Germany during their 2022 World Cup Group E match.
Japan players celebrate scoring against Germany during their 2022 World Cup Group E match. (PHOTO: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images) (Etsuo Hara via Getty Images)

Japan are everything Germany are protesting for

Football and politics cannot mix, unless Fifa is involved, shoving the two together like a demented mixologist making a cocktail that’s one third soft power, one third personal gain and the rest a blend of gurgling bile.

It was political when former Fifa president Sepp Blatter tried to organise a peace match between Israel and Palestine in his facile attempt to win the Nobel Peace Prize. (Spoiler: he didn’t win, despite the glowing endorsement from Russian President Vladimir Putin.)

It was political when current Fifa president, Infantino, made his infantile Spartacus speech, declaring himself a gay, disabled, migrant worker from Qatar. He understood the sacrifice of those that had built the press centre he was sitting in, because he’d had ginger hair as a kid.

Stick to football, Gianni.

The World Cup was political from the moment Blatter opened that envelope in 2010 and continued to be political when the first body was carried from a construction site and remained political when the 6,000th body was removed from a tournament-related venue.

But it’s not political when the Germans want to wear a rainbow-coloured armband.

Fifa’s representatives support universal human rights and gender and sexual equality, until they don’t. Their values are determined not by their moral compass, but by the name pulled from the envelope. Their values, as always, are malleable. That’s the hypocrisy.

And the Germans called them on it. They lost the battle against Japan but won the PR war. The international debate that their protest has instigated is worth so much more than three points in Group E. No one inside their country fancies watching the Japan defeat again, obviously, but that team photo will be analysed in German classrooms for years to come. Expect the rest of the world to join in.

Ideally, we would follow Fifa’s hypocritical advice. We would gladly stick to football. And for 15 magnificent minutes, we did just that. Several second-half substitutions, a gung-ho attitude and a veteran winger morphing into Messi allowed us to briefly disappear down a rabbit hole. It was a dizzying collage of blue streaks, smiling faces and endearing characters. Pure escapism. Utterly perfect.

Asano’s smash and grab was pinched from Dickens, an artful dodger bustling his way through football’s high society to kick the rich in the shins. How can you not get a buzz from that? How can you not love every second of Japan’s celebrations?

They were liberating, spontaneous, joyful and inclusive: everything that a World Cup should be. And everything that the Germans were protesting for.

The Japanese won the game, beautifully and deservedly, but there were no losers here.

(Japan) were liberating, spontaneous, joyful and inclusive: everything that a World Cup should be. And everything that the Germans were protesting for.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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