Although Americans love their soccer, our interest in the sport pales in comparison to the fanaticism about non-American football that exists throughout the world. This fanaticism is rooted in pride, tradition, community and love of the sport. All of this has come together with a fever pitch with the FIFA World Cup, in South Africa, currently going on and lasting through July 11th.
For the uninitiated (or for those who simply haven't been paying attention), basically there are qualifying tournaments for teams from around the world and the winners get into The World Cup competition. For The World Cup itself there are eight groups (Groups A-H) with four teams in each group. Thus a total of thirty-two teams, including the USA, went into competition for the World Cup. The first stage of the World Cup competition is the group stage where sixteen winners move onto a knockout head-to-head stage of competition. This culminates with a series of quarterfinals, semi-finals and then a massively hyped final. The winning team gets a shiny trophy and the undying respect of the world soccer/football community.
Imagine the Super Bowl on a global scale and then double the hype. Throughout the world soccer stadiums are small cities. This is true with The World Cup this year as the stadium in Johannesburg hosts 94,000 people. Every game is a spectacle rich in national pride, colorful pageantry and raw enthusiasm.
Culturally this is a triumph for South Africa and Nelson Mandela. The nation loves football and is eager to show itself off as a nation of resources, natural beauty and culture.
Exposure from hosting the Cup will further eradicate the ghosts of Apartheid and move South Africa deeper into the world of nations. South Africa has been sprucing up for this for years now. They are trying to put on a face that differs from the popular misconceptions about life there, as seen in films like Invictus and District 9. The slums and townships remain, but now they have hope and lots of new money to play with and use to rebuild.
So if you haven't been watching, why should you watch the World Cup? Well there are a few reasons. My favorite is that you can have a day of pub and pint and go to a local watering hole and see games. Most of them open at crazy early times to accommodate fans. You get to see expats from various countries and experience their way of life.
Second there is the game on the pitch itself. Most FIFA World Cup games are terrific matches with skilled athletes rising to the occasion for their country. I also enjoy watching the tournament itself because of the competition. If you like drama this is for you. Where we stand right now, Uruguay is still in--as they always play tough. This is measured by Brazil, which has five World Cup titles and always shows up. Germany never quits and Portugal wants to come back from their fourth place ranking last time. With all of this international intrigue who needs the United Nations?
But the biggest reason to see the World Cup for me isn't necessarily the games. Although they are exciting, it is cool to see most of the world go absolutely mad for a month without any bloodshed. The World Cup unifies people, whether it is on the field, in the stands, in the pubs or just at watch parties in homes and yards. Sometimes you may get really lucky and the fans of a particular country will make some great food and bring some of their native booze with them to share at the gathering. This is cultural exchange and understanding on the most basic level. As the World Cup unfolds, legacies are defined; nations are united and amazing matches of skill and precision progress, eventually reaching an incredibly dramatic climax of sport.
Since soccer is the world's game, and the World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world it only makes sense to watch some of it. George Lucas wishes he had audiences and drama like this. Advertisers covet the global audience. Fans become rabid creatures that will stay up late or get up early to cheer on their brothers. The action on the pitch is better then most blockbuster films. The players are often larger then life. But perhaps the neatest thing about the World Cup is that at some point in the next month, David will beat Goliath and the winning country will go nuts.
Succinctly, it is impossible to fathom the social, cultural, political and athletic magnitude of the World Cup. It is an event that transcends Olympiads or concerts; it is the only cooperative global event that actually brings people together. Soccer games have poetry to them. They have a rhythm and pulse that electrifies as the clock ticks down. For the next month the world will be in motion. As each goal brings us closer to a champion how can you not watch?