Foreign Policy Blogs

The imperial advantage?

With Brazil having already clinched a spot in the World Cup round of 16 and Portugal all but assured a place as well, Friday’s game between these two soccer powers doesn’t have the significance many of us anticipated when the match was announced last year. (The fixture was one of the first of this World Cup to sell out.)

But the historical backdrop of tomorrow’s match-up helps compensate for its lack of competitive drama. Contests pitting imperial powers against their former colonies reserve a special place in the World Cup, the signature tournament for a sport famous for reflecting tensions in the geopolitical landscape. The US-England battle was dubbed “1776 2.0” by one pundit, and in Rustenberg Americans donned flags stitched with the revolution slogan “Don’t Tread on Me.” In Brazil, the media narrative has been dominated by the irascible Dunga, who in addition to limiting media access to the team, cursed out a journalist earlier this week.

Today’s Folho de Sao Paulo did devote a short article to Brazil’s historical domination over their former colonial masters. The Brazilians have taken 12 of the last 18 contests between the two nations, losing only four times. The Portuguese, however, won their only previous World Cup meeting, in 1966.

Brazil’s mastery over their former imperial overlords bucks an established football trend. According to Franklin Foer’s afterword in the wonderful The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, colonizers have historically held an advantage over their colonies in terms of football prowess.

Given Brazil’s record against Portugal and that the US edged past England to take their group, we may need to introduce a corollary to Foer’s theory. Specifically, that colonies which gained their freedom in the 18th and 19th centuries now hold the upper-hand over the European empires founded during the age of exploration. Nations that were colonized during the second wave of imperialism, however, seem to still lag far behind their former European rulers on the pitch.