Soccer's social significance: Patrick Ridge talks World Cup
December 16, 2022
Full stadiums. Roaring crowds. Flags of every color. No other event unites global sports fans quite like the World Cup.
It’s fair to say Patrick Ridge knows more about soccer than the casual spectator. Besides knowing the ins and outs of the game, he is accutely aware of the sport's social and cultural significance.
Ridge, an assistant professor of Spanish at Virginia Tech, delves deep into the subject matter in his research, which primarily focuses on literary and cultural representations of soccer in Latin America. He will be teaching a course called “Sports Film in the U.S. and Latin America” next semester, and a “Soccer in Latin America” course during the fall.
Ridge recently took time to share his takes on this year’s FIFA World Cup, along with the reasons he is passionate about researching the game. Argentina and France will battle for this year’s title on Sunday, Dec. 18.
Q: What has been most interesting to you about this year’s World Cup?
A: Almost every sports fan loves the underdog and Morocco has played that role in this World Cup. Who would have thought that Morocco would win a group that included 2018 runner-up Croatia and third-place Belgium, defeat Spain and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, and play in a semi-final (the first African nation to do so) against France? One of the fun things about studying literature and sports is identifying how narrative influences our understanding of the latter. Just think about how often commentators or sports writers have framed matches in terms of David versus Goliath, historical political conflict (i.e., the U.S.-Mexico rivalry), not to mention the use of hyperbole (i.e., ¡Goooooooooooooooool!). To demonstrate my point, watch and listen to the replay of Diego Maradona's second goal against England in the quarter-finals of the 1986 Men's World Cup, narrated by Víctor Hugo Morales. Sorry, England fans.
Q: Did you play soccer as a kid?
A: Yes, I loved playing soccer, as well as basketball, as a kid and actually became a fan of international soccer while watching the 1998 Men's World Cup in France. As a player, I played center-forward or striker. Since I was a more talented runner though, I ended up running cross-country in high school, but continued to play pick-up soccer or basketball whenever I got the chance.
Q: What do you love about the sport, and what inspires you to write about it?
A: My scholarly interest in soccer stems from experiences studying Spanish and Portuguese abroad. What I love most about soccer is its ability to unite, and I experienced that firsthand in Segovia, Spain while watching Real Madrid, as well as respective national teams in Buenos Aires and São Paulo, Brazil. Although my prior linguistic knowledge helped, taking an interest in local soccer facilitated social interactions and a better understanding of my new cultural surroundings. Eventually, these experiences inspired me to research soccer's greater social impact, a topic I continue to explore in my research. For example, as we've seen at the World Cup, soccer has historically provided the popular means for imagining national, regional, and social identity. One of my most memorable experiences was attending a Mexico vs. USA men's game while studying at Arizona State. Despite the game taking place in Glendale, Arizona, I'd say about 75 percent — maybe more — of the crowd wore green, thus demonstrating the influence and presence of Mexican and Mexican-American culture in the U.S. Explored in my research and courses, soccer has provided an engaging way to study literature, history, politics, economics, gender, race, and ethnicity, specifically in the U.S. and Latin American context.
Q: What will be Argentinian Lionel Messi’s cultural impact and legacy?
A: At the end of his career, Messi will be one of the most decorated professional players ever, but he's still yet to win the World Cup for Argentina. He's an immensely talented dribbler, passer, and finisher, but also has the unique ability to stay on his feet, even when fouled. Perhaps this is why so many U.S. fans — notoriously critical of the game's theatrics — admire him as well. If you are new to the game, NPR recently released “La última copa”(“The last cup”), a podcast that neatly summarizes Messi's career and final attempt at World Cup glory. What appears to be different about Messi in last year’s Copa America and the 2022 World Cup is his outspoken leadership on and off the pitch. If Messi and Argentina win the final, he might finally step out of Maradona’s shadow. Domestically, then, Messi would boost Argentine national pride and morale, particularly as the country experiences an economic crisis and political corruption. Put into greater perspective, though, Messi and generational counterparts represent more than just national symbols. Messi is an Argentine that has played his entire adult professional career in Barcelona and Paris. Furthermore, he has numerous corporate sponsors and his own logo (reminiscent of the Michael Jordan's "Jumpman"). So, while he serves as a symbol for Argentine nationalism at the World Cup, he's also represented Catalonian regionalism, while helping to sell tickets and club merchandise for FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain F.C., television and advertising rights, and Budweiser, Gatorade, and Adidas cleats, among other things. This suggests how soccer is now much more than a game, but a global spectacle. Eduardo Galeano beautifully sums this up in his poetic “Fútbol a sol y sombra” (translated in English as “Soccer in Sun and Shadow”), a must-read for any soccer fan.
Q: Who are you rooting for in the final?
A: Considering that I teach and research on Spanish and Latin American studies, I will be wholeheartedly rooting for Argentina in the final.
Q: Any other thoughts on this year’s tournament?
A: There’s a lot of buzz around the tournament in Qatar, but remember that the Women’s World Cup will be held this summer in Australia and New Zealand. Women’s soccer has long been ignored and underfunded, despite its long history in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. To this day, the 1971 Women's World Cup final held at the Estadio Azteca (Mexico City) holds the attendance record for a women's soccer match with 110,000 fans. Why might you have never heard of it? Because it's not officially recognized by FIFA (see Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel's “Futbolera” for a more detailed history of women's sports in Latin America). Part of my current book project examines these untold stories and others written by women authors and players in an effort to debunk the game's masculinist myths, among these, the notion that soccer is a "man's game." The women's game offers just as much excitement and skill as the men's, so tune in this summer.
By Kelsey Bartlett