The World Cup returned Sunday after a short hiatus caused partly by the COVID-19 pandemic. And as a big worldwide event, it’s also become a chance for some teachers to introduce complex themes of international politics.
Soccer is a national pastime in the rest of the world, and while it generally takes a backseat to other sports in the United States, it’s still popular among U.S. youth (and the most popular sport among both boys and girls in Maine and Vermont.)
Richmond, Va., teacher Elliot Barr—who’s also a superfan and podcaster covering his hometown’s professional soccer club and the contributions of Black people to the sport—saw it as an opportunity to unite some of his biggest passions: soccer, social studies, and working with young people.
Barr teaches social studies at the Richmond Alternative School, which serves 16- to 19-year-olds. The school helps students who are nontraditional, some of whom have children or are working, with the aim of getting them to pass the GED high school equivalency exam. Students do a lot of reading and writing in their classes—often comparing and contrasting two texts on the same issue, something they’ll have to master in order to notch a good score on the exam.
So Barr thought: Why not explore the World Cup historically?
At the core of the lesson, Barr said, was this insight: International relations, controversy, and even propaganda are inscribed within the bounds of the competition.
“Even though these tournaments are great fun, they have a political element to them. We spoke about what’s going on in Qatar with migrant workers and with LGBTQ issues,” he said, referencing the country’s poor human-rights record and punitive laws for gay people.
“I want to use this event to showcase for my kids that it’s something to know about sports watching: Businessmen will buy these teams we love, and they might have shady practices going on.
“It is a fantastic event, it’s fun,” he continued. “But behind that backdrop, you have money laundering, and a bunch of other things going on, and when you pull it apart holistically, there’s a lot of controversy there.”
Putting a lesson together
For the lesson, Barr researched online, pulling from resources and looking for interesting reading materials. He landed on two texts: one discussing how soccer made its way from Britain to South America and the details of the very first World Cup, in 1930; and a second focused on the 1934 competition, in which an ascendent Benito Mussolini used it to bolster his fascist program in Italy on an international stage.
Then, Barr had students respond to a series of questions, all while having them think a bit about what the texts reveal about how various countries constructed their national identity through the soccer championship.
For additional writing practice, Barr had students compare and contrast the shutdown of the World Cup in two time periods—first, because of World War II, and then, the more recent pause as a result of COVID-19.
Students were also interested in learning more about the controversies that have come up around this year’s tournament, which have made national news for primary and secondary educators in the United Kingdom: Thousands of principals showed the games to students this week, even as others protested about the signals that might implicitly send about Qatar.
Those topics are worth discussing in this country, too. On social media, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst shared additional resources for teachers on how to think about several additional themes: advertising, press freedom, and human rights in Qatar; the cost of building soccer stadiums; and gendered media coverage.
The insight that the World Cup illuminates contemporary international political conflicts, Barr noted, isn’t even a particularly new one.
Russia’s hosting of the World Cup in 2018 brought howls of indignation, coming just four years after it annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea—a precursor to its invasion this year of Ukraine. And in 1978, host country Argentina won in what remains a highly controversial game tainted by allegations of match-fixing. (It happened just two years after a military junta took control over the country and continues to be analyzed as an attempt to influence international opinion.)
For Barr, who has loved soccer ever since his mom forbade him to play U.S.-style football—“You’re not going to get a concussion,” she said—it was also a chance to open up some of his students’ perspectives. Some of them thought the game was boring; others were entirely unfamiliar with the sport.
“It kind of opened their eyes and experiences,” he said. “A lot of them have never even seen or heard of soccer or knew that it was a popular sport. It kind of pulled them in.”
Marina Whiteleather, Director of Social Media & Audience Engagement and Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.