The Spot

Who Should You Root for in the World Cup Final? (Don’t Worry, You Can’t Do It Wrong.)

Thomas Müller and Lionel Messi
Thomas Müller and Lionel Messi: You can’t go wrong.

Photo of Müller by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images. Photo of Messi by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

On Wednesday, after Argentina defeated the Netherlands, I witnessed a debate between two colleagues over which team to root for in the World Cup final. One made the argument that, given Germany’s dominance during the global economic downturn, it was only right to support the Argentines, whose economy is on the brink of collapse. My other coworker replied that she couldn’t help loving the German players: They play astonishingly beautiful soccer. Also, she added, a lot of them bear a passing resemblance to her husband.

They both made great points. In fact, they both made equally great points, even though Colleague A’s argument was economic and Colleague B’s was half-tactical, half-personal. That’s because there is no such thing as a bad reason to support or despise a team in the World Cup. No reason for loving Germany is too big or too small. No reason for backing Argentina is too weighty or too petty.

The World Cup is unique among sporting events in this regard. When it comes to domestic sports, Americans are usually bound by local loyalty. You don’t have much of a choice about which baseball or football team to root for; you’re born into fandom for the home team. During the Olympics, questions of international relations often arise, and so arguments about sports tend to get more interesting. But since each Olympic event has a different lineup, you’re forced to take individual sports’ and athletes’ merit into account.

During the World Cup, however, each team takes on a synecdochic relationship to its home country. As a result, any personal or political feelings you might have about a given country become fair game for evaluating its national soccer team. It is one of the few times in life when national prejudices, old psychic wounds, and superficial judgments are all equally valid.

Some have argued that there might be moral reasons for rooting for the underdog. As a letter to New York Times ethicist Chuck Klosterman recently put it, it might be “more ethical to cheer for a team whose nation would receive greater utility—in other words, greater joy—from winning.” But Klosterman responded persuasively that World Cup partisanship is 100 percent morally irrelevant. “[T]here is no ethical responsibility to be objective about fandom,” the Ethicist responded. “You can fabricate whatever flawed reason you want.”

If you, like me, are an American who doesn’t give international soccer much attention for 47 out of every 48 months, you are in a unique position to come up with all manner of flawed reasons to support either Germany or Argentina in the final.

For instance, I have a friend who always roots against Germany because of the Holocaust. Mesut Özil, Jérôme Boateng, and Sami Khedira had nothing to do with the Holocaust. They weren’t even alive during the Holocaust, and if they’re like the Germans I know, they’re deeply chagrined and horrified by it. Nonetheless, my friend’s reason for wanting Argentina to win is impossible to argue with.

But if the Holocaust doesn’t seem relevant to you when you’re evaluating athletic competitions, don’t worry! There are plenty of other acceptable reasons to want Germany to lose to Argentina. A few suggestions:

  • You think the Germans play like automatons, not like human beings.
  • You think Lionel Messi is one of the greatest players alive, and that he embodies the spirit of American individualism, whereas the Germans’ collaborative playing style embodies the spirit of socialism.
  • You’re still mad that Germany beat the U.S. in the group stage.
  • You didn’t like the way Germany ran up the score against Brazil and think they deserve a comeuppance.
  • Your family’s originally from Colombia, and even though Colombia is out, you still want a South American team to win.
  • Lionel Messi kind of reminds you of your dad.
  • You think Francis is a way better pope than Benedict XVI.
  • You have a crush on Ezequiel Lavezzi.

On the other hand, there are an infinite number of valid reasons to want Germany to beat Argentina, such as:

  • You think the Germans play the most beautiful tiki-taka the world has ever seen.
  • You think Messi dominates his team like a tyrant, whereas the Germans play together with admirable cooperation and egalitarianism.
  • Your parents knew someone who was disappeared by the government of Argentina in the Dirty War.
  • Your ex-girlfriend cheated on you with an Argentine guy.
  • Your ex-girlfriend cheated on you with Ezequiel Lavezzi.
  • Messi kind of reminds you of your dad.
  • You have a crush on Bastian Schweinsteiger.
  • Several members of the German team resemble your husband.

Personally, I want Germany to win because I spent the summer of 2010 in Berlin, where I was infected by the locals’ enthusiasm for the Mannschaft, and also because at the time I was dating a Thomas Müller lookalike of whom I have fond memories. In other words, my reasons for liking Germany are totally idiosyncratic and irrational.

And that’s OK! The political correctness and rationality that rule our everyday lives go completely out the window when it comes to choosing a World Cup team to root for. This is one of the best parts of this magical tournament. It’s rare when you can counter someone’s argument about WWII with an argument about hot bods, and everyone can be right.