The World Cup’s Classiest Countries

Senegal and Japan would seem as far apart culturally as they are geographically: the West African nation of 15 million is poor, highly diverse ethnically and linguistically, and predominately Muslim; the East Asian island nation of 125 million is among the wealthiest and most homogeneous societies in the world, and is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Confucian thought.

Yet this year’s World Cup brought to light one unlikely but endearing similarity: both cultures share an appreciation for cleanliness and etiquette, even amid the highly competitive (and often very messy) environment of federation football. 

As Quartz reported, around the same time that each of the soccer underdogs triumphed against their respective opponents, their fans withheld well deserved celebrating to pick up after themselves:

On June 19, Senegal played Poland, beating the European team 2-1. After the game, Senegalese soccer fans, who were no doubt ecstatic, didn’t party. “[T]hey put celebrations on hold … due to the fact that they were busy picking up litter and tidying their section of the stand at the Otkrytiye Arena in Moscow,” ESPN reports. Their actions prompted Spanish-language station TyC Sports to tweet video of these efforts with the hashtag #RESPECT.

Around the same time, over at Mordovia Arena in Saransk, Japanese fans were also busy tidying after their team’s 2-1 victory over Colombia. This moved a fan of the Japanese supporters, Christopher McKaig, to tweet video of their cleanup, calling it his “favorite moment of the World Cup so far.”

A pretty classy way to kick off celebrations. And as it turns out, it’s not too unusual that these otherwise very different cultures would share such values in common:

While the cleanups may seem strange to those unfamiliar with Senegal and Japan, the efforts are actually typical of the two highly polite cultures. In both lands, community needs and cooperation are emphasized over individual desires, and neat appearances really matter.

For example, in Senegal, the appropriate answer to a series of queries that make up ritualized daily exchanges is, “Jamm rekk,” meaning “peace only” in Wolof. Keeping the peace starts with greeting. Indeed, one of the most cutting but totally acceptable insults is, “What? You don’t greet?”

As for neatness, even dirt floors and dusty yards in remote villages are swept regularly, and the typical crisp white outfits of men and women alike remain impeccable in taxis crammed with seven passengers and no air-conditioning through sheer force of will.

The Japanese, too, are keen on greetings—failure to acknowledge another person, or to do so without the appropriate fervor, is considered very rude. So is littering, which is why Japanese smokers travel with tiny personal ashtrays they use to avoid flicking cigarette butts on the street.

Tellingly, each country’s distinct spiritual traditions likely play a role in shaping these attitudes, which speaks to the universality of certain mores and mannerisms.

Senegalese life is highly influenced by a strain of Islamic mysticism developed by the country’s early 20th century hero, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, who famously preached, “Pray, but plow your fields.”

Similarly, the Zen Buddhist tradition in Japan prizes discipline as a manifestation of spirituality. As Zen monk Shoukei Matsumoto, best-selling author of A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, explains, “We sweep dust to remove our worldly desires. We scrub dirt to free ourselves of attachments.”

This isn’t the first time that either nation has displayed such class: Japan in particular has long been famous for the tidiness and good behavior of its fans. It was very fitting that both countries ended up playing against each other, ultimately tying at 2-2; after a hard fought game, Senegalese and Japanese joined together to clean the stadium.

Such etiquette seems to be catching on: crediting their Japanese counterparts as an inspiration, Uruguay’s fans took to cleaning up after themselves in Rostov stadium following their 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia. The beautiful game indeed.


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