Despite shaky origins (FIFA corruption and Russia), World Cup 2018 captivated young people around the world by doling out the underdog drama, feel-good multiculturalism, and political activism.
FOOTBALL, AS IMAGINED BY DISNEY
From Pussy Riot demands to presidential embraces, the 2018 World Cup was a whirlwind of emotion for young people all over the world. Not unlike a classic Disney picture, it was tournament of heroes and villains.
Croatia is a tiny nation on the Adriatic Sea, with a population of just 4.2 million people. Yet from their first group match against Nigeria (in their hyped new kit) on the June 16 until the July 15 final against France, Croatia imprinted itself on the global youth's imagination, making their journey to the final - against all the odds.
"No one would have imagined they'd make it that far. Tiny countries just do not make it to the finals. The excitement was infectious. I think I actually felt Croatian at one point!" - Philip, 26 – The Love Network
The classic underdog story tugged at the global youth's romantic side, with some even likening the event to a Disney movie, or Rom-Com.
Another youth hero of the tournament was French forward, Kylian Mbappé. The 19-year-old became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since footballing deity, Pelé in 1958 – reassuring his club PSG, he is in fact worth his reported €180m transfer fee. Mbappé further endeared himself to the world's youth when he donated his entire tournament earnings to the sporting charity Premiers de Cordée, which helps disabled and hospitalised children access sports.
In terms of villains, who better than authoritarian puppet-master Vlad Putin, and controversy machine, Conor McGregor. McGregor faced severe backlash from his young fans when he posted a photo of himself and the Russian leader attending the final game on his Instagram, describing Putin, as a 'great leader'. Fans responded with 'Used to like you. Now you’re just a dipshit' and 'If human rights abuses make you a good leader...'.
Endorsing human-rights abusers is rarely a good-look for celebrities trying to earn youth-love. McGregor would have been much better off following Paddy Power's suit, offering to donate £10,000 to Russian LGBT+ charities for every goal the Russian team scored in the World Cup.
The National Centre for Domestic Violence used the platform to raise awareness about domestic abuse. They produced graphic posters depicting national flags made up of domestic abuse injuries. Addressing the link between football and domestic violence, it created a supremely powerful campaign.
ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: THE ILLUSION OF NATIONALISM
Many young people have also remarked on France's win as a significant note and celebration of immigration and multiculturalism, owing to the broad national makeup of the team. Nineteen of the 23-strong squad came from an immigrant background – reflecting the multiculturalism of the '98 team, nicknamed 'Black, Blancs, Beurs', referencing the young Black, White and Arab players who made up the French national team.
In a time of rising reactionary nationalism across Europe and the US, the French national team demonstrated clearly how immigration and multiculturalism creates a better, more open society – something most young people want to see. French midfielder Blaise Matuidi summed it up nicely: “The diversity we have in this team is in the image of our beautiful country."
This World Cup was an intensely human event and garnered huge emotional buy-in across the globe. While there is a certain sense of discord and young people are feeling somewhat disillusioned about the world at large (Brexit, Trump, Russia), for this one month, the World Cup managed to unite the world in a friendly, respectful, and collaborative competition. People were able to feel proud of their country without resorting to ugly nationalism.
"The World Cup almost felt like a holiday from the madness – a month contained to just one thing, full of nice stories – with people being good to one another. It was heartening – and just what I needed.' - Sarah, 23, The Love Network
Young people could feel hopeful, proud and reassured that there is still some good in the world.
Global sporting events are moments where people are brought together with a common interest. However, these moments continue to be harnessed brilliantly by brands and individuals alike, to make significant, broader statements about society and culture. They're increasingly used as platforms from which people can raise important questions and make significant statements about things that are not directly linked to the narrative on the pitch.
Ultimately, it's more than just a game, it’s about unity. We're all fans of a little competition, but as much as the World Cup pits countries against one another on the pitch, its unifying power is second to none. Considering the political context of this tournament, the magic of this feat captured the attention of youth in an impactful and positive way.