Gene Lyons

As I write, the first of two World Cup semi-final games between Belgium and France is set to kick off in Moscow, and as soon as this column is finished and filed I'll be enjoying the spectacle on TV. Largely for the sake of my old friend Alain in Montpellier, I'll be pulling hard for France.

During the thrilling France vs. Argentina match last week, my wife wondered aloud if Alain was watching.

I first met Alain on a tennis court. He leaped high to hit a lob, fanned it and laughed at himself. "Ouf," he said. "I think I am Bob McAdoo."

A visiting professor at UT-Austin, he'd spent his first afternoon in America watching NBA basketball on TV. So, yeah, if there's a ball involved, Alain's definitely watching. Not to mention a tricolor French flag. Although pessimistic about this year's team -- I've tried with limited success to persuade him that France looks to me the most athletically gifted World Cup team -- he's both a great patriot and a passionate supporter of the national side.

Also a boar hunter, rock climber and hiker of glaciers -- a vigorous Frenchman, indeed.

Alain also knows how little I know about football.

My friend Lawrence on the Isle of Wight is similarly leery about England's chances. Indeed, he claims to believe that World Cup success would be a bad thing, as it could enhance the popularity of Prime Minister Theresa May, a dreadful outcome to him. Grumble, grumble.

Nevertheless, I'm confident he'd never miss England's semi-final match with Croatia -- or, regardless of who's playing, the World Cup final on Sunday, along with me, Alain and billions of fans worldwide. Here in the U.S., ratings are down because the American team is not competing, but the 2014 World Cup final reached an estimated 3.2 billion viewers.

That's "billion," with a "B." The World Cup is far and away the most popular athletic event in the world. And justifiably so, in my opinion. For all the scandal and corruption dogging FIFA, professional football's worldwide governing body, no other sport save possibly the Olympics can match the tournament's international appeal.

Because, you see, George Orwell was badly mistaken. Back in December 1945, with World War II just ended, Europe in ruins and a brutal winter coming on, Orwell wrote a column about the controversial visit of Dynamo, a Russian professional team, to England.

Characteristically blunt, he argued that "sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will, and that if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them slightly worse than before."

Orwell blamed nationalism, which he defined as "the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."

"Serious sport," he argued, "has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting."

It's a characteristically brilliant line, but seriously misleading. "Minus the shooting" is no small distinction. It's the most crucial difference imaginable. A man of his times, Orwell had no way of imagining today's world of fluid national identities, mixed loyalties and open borders. Of the four semi-final teams, only tiny (and recently independent) Croatia resembles the kind of ethnically unified teams Orwell wrote about.

And politics aside, how could one not cheer a country smaller than Missouri taking on Russia?

Virtually all World Cup players are professional athletes, many of whom play outside their native countries. French striker Antoine Griezmann told reporters he'd deliberately restrained himself from celebrating a crucial goal out of respect for Uruguayan players who are his teammates on Atletico Madrid -- one is his son's godfather. Belgian star Romelu Lukaku, (Manchester United) was shown on TV responding to reporters in French, Dutch and Portuguese. He's also fluent in English.

Indeed, if World Cup football has an overriding political message, it's that all racial and ethnic theories of athletic superiority are bunk. The player most often called the world's greatest is Lionel Messi, an Argentine of Italian descent who plays for Barcelona. Others favor Cristiano Ronaldo, a handsome Portuguese rascal (Real Madrid). Their teams are gone. France's emerging star during this World Cup is 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain).

I saw an article somewhere belaboring the obvious: that the strong presence of ethnic African and North African players on France's World Cup team belies the reality that French society is not uniformly color-blind.

As if we didn't have Marine Le Pen to tell us that.

No, but France's football team appears to embody the national ideal of liberte, egalitie and fraternitie (liberty, equality and brotherhood) as closely as one can imagine. So do the English and Belgian sides, an ironic residue of colonialism.

Maybe it's an optimistic illusion, but then that's what sports are for.

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