The ball has stopped wars and started them, whipsawed financial markets and sent shivers of ineluctable joy and cardiac arrest rippling across entire countries at the same moment.
And the way it rolls at the World Cup means everything.
Because of it, a tenuous truce between the government and rebels in the Ivory Coast holds firm, politicos in Mexico worry voters will ignore a presidential election, and several more in Ecuador gladly shelved their campaigns for the coming month.
“Soccer is first. The craziness surrounding soccer is second,” Latin American writer and social critic Carlos Monsivais summed up recently. “Then there is the rest of the world.”
From Friday until July 9, the globe will spin according to the rhythms of that ball. Teams from 32 qualifying nations will kick it in a dozen German cities for the singular honor of hoisting a cup. The trophy stands 14 inches tall, weighs 14 pounds and is made of 18-karat gold. The real measure of its heft, though, can be found in the scene it depicts: two human figures holding up the Earth.
More than the Olympics and anything short of actual war, it crowns the world’s reigning superpower for the next four years.
At least a third of the planet will tune in at some point, making the Super Bowl – what Americans still stubbornly call “football” – seem like a pre-party. Everywhere but at taverns and cafes in practically every place but the United States, business will get done only when broadcast schedules allow.
“On June 14 at 4 p.m. we expect an epidemic of unexplained illnesses to appear,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said, referring to his country’s opening match against Spain, its first-ever in the World Cup.
In the home of the defending champion and only five-time winner, Brazil, both the mood and the economy could hinge on the outcome.
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 9 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.”
Wall Street, however, need not worry.
Even when its team does well, as in the 2002 tournament, America is singularly oblivious.
Writer Adam Gopnik tried to explain why by contrasting the boundless optimism of American sports – plenty of scoring, action for its own sake – with the low-scoring, often defensive mindset dictated by the game the rest of the world calls football.
“The World Cup is a festival of fate – man accepting his hard circumstances, the near-certainty of his failure. There is, after all, something familiar about a contest in which nobody wins and nobody pots a goal,” he wrote in the New Yorker. “Nil-nil is the score of life. This may be where the difficulty lies for Americans, who still look for Eden out there on the ballfield.”
This time around, the U.S. team is bolstered by a handful of world-class players and promoted by sponsorship dollars from Nike.
This time around, there are expectations, muted though they might be.
In Japan and South Korea, the Americans successfully surfed a wave of upsets all the way to the quarterfinals. But it’s both the curse and blessing of soccer in America that not enough people back home even noticed. A team used to being ignored suddenly turned up on magazine covers, network TV and President Bush’s call list.
The Germans, staging the Cup for the first time since reunification, have the opposite problem.
The three-time Cup champions and runners-up to Brazil four years ago were handed a place in the field without having to qualify. Now all that remains for the host country is to walk a fine line between exhibiting too much nationalism and too little, keep hooligans and racist fans from disrupting the matches and terrorists from wreaking havoc, and recoup a $12 billion investment in infrastructure, security and marketing costs – and win. That’s the plan, anyway.
Only last month, an interviewer from Der Spiegel asked national team coach Juergen Klinsmann one more time whether “your declared goal of winning the world championship was just a trick to get people excited?”
Klinsmann, a steely sort who won a Cup playing for Germany in 1990 and now lives much of the time in laid-back California, responded coolly.
“If we talk only about the quarterfinals or the semifinals, people will get it into their heads that all is well even if we get no further than that,” he said. “It’s important to always be hungry for more.”
Football has never lacked for motivated players.
Once described as “rude turbulence” and played at varying times down alleys, over roads and across the countryside by teams ranging from a dozen soldiers to entire villages, the game’s quadrennial championship has evolved into sports’ grandest global spectacle.
It was codified in England in 1863 and carried to the far corners of the world on the wings of an empire, taking hold almost everywhere but the United States. There, a few dozen student-athletes from a handful of Eastern universities quickly grew impatient with the lack of scoring and devised a game of their own.
Despite England’s proselytizing abroad, nowhere was more attention lavished on the game than at home, It became a different kind of opium for the industrialized masses. Laborers spent their week in the drudgery of the mines and mills; on Saturday, they left work at noon and went straight to the pub, then to the match.
For all its early glories, the game’s stature grew as word of the “Christmas truce” of 1915 spread. During World War I, near a snowy village in France, a British mortar battalion huddled in its trenches 100 yards from German lines. A year earlier, British and German troops had agreed to a brief cease-fire, ending when commanders on both sides cut the fraternization short. This Christmas Eve, the two sides exchanged carols, then shouts of “Hello Tommy, Hello Fritz,” and finally, they met and swapped 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.”
That changed 50 years later when England, no longer an empire nor even the undisputed master of its game, prepared to play Germany in the 1966 Cup final on home soil.
“West Germany may beat us at our national sport today, but that would be only fair,” columnist Vincent Mulchrone wrote in The Daily Mail that morning. “We beat them twice at theirs.”
To be fair, football has caused at least as many conflicts as it halted, however briefly.
In 1967, both sides in Nigeria’s civil war agreed to a a 48-hour cease-fire so that Pele, the Brazilian forward considered the most magical player ever, could show off his skills in an exhibition match. Last October, after Ivory Coast clinched a trip to Germany, President Laurent Gbagbo acceded to the entreaties of his football federation and restarted peace talks in a country riven by conflict since 1999.
On the other hand, a series of disputes between El Salvador and Honduras boiled over in 1969 when their national teams met to begin a three-game World Cup qualification series. A riot during the second game ruptured diplomatic relations and was followed two weeks later by the 100-hour “Soccer War” that claimed 2,000 lives.
It has been said there is no greater drama in sports than watching a team trying to validate its national character in a World Cup. That is as true today as it was in the game’s formative years.
More than a half-century ago, Uruguay, the original South American power, upset Brazil, the emerging one, and eight Uruguayans were said to have dropped dead from heart attacks as the country erupted in celebration.
That depth of emotion, like the game itself, still seems hopelessly foreign to most Americans. But all it requires is a paradigm shift.
“Soccer was not meant to be enjoyed,” Gopnik wrote. “It was meant to be experienced.”
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