For those who don’t know, the World Cup starts Friday. Most of America will live in ignorance of this fact. Football? er, soccer is boring to them. That’s fine.
But for those jumping the ‘Soccer is dumb’ hurdle, the World Cup is a prime place to start. And at 12:00 p.m. EST, the rest of the world will stop for a month. Life, jobs and reality will be suspended until July 9.
In order to be informed, there are some interesting storylines to know. Borrowing from ESPN’s ad campaign: “It closes the shops. Closes the schools. Closes a city. Stops a war. Fuels a nation. Breaks borders. Builds a hero. Crushes a dream. Answers a prayer. And changes everything.”
While it’s cheesy, it fits. The game means that much to the world. But for simplicity’s sake, focus on ‘Closes a city,’ ‘Stops a war’ and ‘Fuels a nation.’
Cities will come to a full halt in 31 of 32 contending countries. Many from the 197 unfortunate countries who didn’t qualify will also shut down.
In a recent column for The Chicago Tribune, Tom Hundley compared this phenomenon to religion. With two billion believers, Hundley wrote, Christianity is the second religion in the world, behind soccer.
“It may be an exaggeration to call soccer a religion, but it is obviously more than a game,” he stated. “The quest for the World Cup, soccer’s grail, can humiliate the powerful and make the wretched and ragged of the Earth feel like world-beaters.”
In cities scattered across six continents, bars and pubs will be full. Federation Internationale de Football Association or FIFA, estimated 28.8 billion viewers during the 2002 World Cup. Quick reminder: There are only 6.6 billion people in the world. 64 games will be played with an average television audience around 320 million per game. The Super Bowl draws a third of that.
The impact of the World Cup is powerful. It can put an end to a lot of hatred in the world. Well, maybe not an end, but at least a temporary truce. Africa has five countries competing in Germany. Tunisia is the only veteran of the bunch, making its third appearance. Angola, Ghana, Togo and the Ivory Coast are all making their World Cup debuts. Possibly the most interesting of this group is the Ivory Coast, which has been torn apart by coups, rebellions and ethnic conflicts since 1999. When the Elephants qualified in October 2005, the head of the Ivory Coast Football Federation pleaded with President Laurent Gbagbo to restart peace talks. Elections are scheduled for October of this year.
Another example of soccer’s peacemaking qualities occurred in 1915 during World War I (before the World Cup started). On Christmas Eve near a small French village, a British mortar battalion sat in trenches 100 meters from German lines. Observing the brief cease-fire, the two sides exchanged carols, shouted friendly teasing and finally met, swapping cigarettes.
“Somehow a ball was produced,” Bertie Felstead, the last known member of the British battalion recalled a few years ago. “I remember scrambling around in the snow. There could have been 50 on each side. No one was keeping score.”
In 1967, 48-hour cease-fire came to the Nigerian Civil War. The reason? So, the Brazilian forward Pele, considered the best player ever, could show off his skills in an exhibition match.
Soccer can have an adverse effect on relations though. Disagreements between El Salvador and Honduras boiled over in 1969 when they met during World Cup qualification. A riot during broke out and disintegrated diplomacy. Two weeks later the 100-hour “Soccer War” had claimed 2,000 lives.
Emotion runs deep in this stuff. The World Cup is serious business. Seemingly everyone in the world is wired for this thing. ESPN claims in its ads, even the Scottish who didn’t make the Cup, will be in Germany cheering Scotland anyway.
A little over 50 years ago, the original South American powerhouse, Uruguay, upset Brazil, the emerging one. Eight Uruguayans reportedly died from heart attacks as the country burst into celebration.
Jim Litke of the Associated Press reports “On the eve of the 2002 Cup, a study by HSBC Bank found the stock markets of developed countries that won the World Cup since 1966 outperformed the global average by nine percent.” And a working paper by three business professors cited recently in the Washington Post found “an economically and statistically significant negative effect on the losing country’s stock market.”
This is the end-all-be-all for bragging rights. Forget the Olympics, this is it. The English regularly chant “Two World Wars and one World Cup” when they meet Germany. They love bringing up memories of England’s only World Cup championship, a win over West Germany in the 1966 final.
Breeding patriotism is one thing, but players can become gods during the Cup. Pele became the game’s greatest with astonishing performances and Brazilian championships in 1958, 1962 and 1970. England’s Geoff Hurst scored a hat trick in the 1966 final, and was subsequently knighted.
Emotions of that sort, like the game itself, are still anomalies to the American majority. But with the 2006 Cup in the starting gate, and the U.S. ranked fifth in the world, jump onboard and see how what the world refers to as “the beautiful game” changes everything.