Why the World Cup matters
More drama than The Bachelor: the World Cup is worth celebrating
If there was ever an episode of Planet Earth devoted to humans, one would expect David Attenborough’s voice to say something along these lines: “Every four years, 736 of the most physically fit human beings —out of a population of over seven billion— come together for a competition watched the world over. But it is more than a sporting event, it is an integral part of humanity’s collective being that is deeper than the physical demands of the competition.” Okay, that may be a tad dramatic, but you get the point.
What Attenborough would hypothetically be alluding to, would be not the Olympics, but the FIFA World Cup. Of course, this year marks the culmination of another quadrennial, with 31 countries sending footballers to Russia, with the goal of unseating Germany as holders of the golden trophy.
There was talk that this year’s edition would suffer because stalwarts Italy and the United States —who aren’t stalwarts in terms of what they call ‘soccer’, but are, purportedly, overlords of the universe— were absent from the tournament. But, despite that, and despite widespread corruption befalling international and national soccer governing bodies and both political and doping scandals swirling around the host nation, there’s no reason to believe that the quadrennial competition will lose any of its sheen in 2018.
That’s because the World Cup is more than just a sporting event that draws billions of viewers — a little over a billion people tuned into the 2014 final alone. Instead it carries untold cultural and social gravitas around the world the likes of which few other events can match. With such a large and varied audience, the World Cup will always be flush with cash thanks to the importance advertisers, like Coca-Cola and Visa, give it. So any doubts as to the event’s sustainability in the absence of supposed financial heavyweights like the U.S. and Italy are moot to begin with.
The commitment of brands to the World Cup illustrates something deeper about the event though, and about football itself: it is a powerful sport that people have unshakeable ties to. Being associated with the World Cup and whichever moments of sporting heroism and undoubtedly bound to occur throughout the competition offers brands invaluable cultural capital.
That’s the thing about the World Cup, the drama that unfolds over the course of a month isn’t soon forgotten; it becomes ingrained in the audience’s collective memory. Even fleeting moments in matches that were seen as unimportant remain unforgettable, like Senegal’s shock win over defending champions France on the opening match day of the 2002 edition. Maybe the result was never going to be forgotten, but what I remember most vividly from an early-morning match 16 years ago was the celebration after Senegal scored and I’m sure that many around the world, and definitely in Senegal, would concur.
Literally half of the world’s population tunes into the World Cup, so it becomes a shared experience even when people watch it alone. You can ask dozens of people about Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup and even though they may have watched it separately or in different countries —or even belatedly— and you’d very likely get the impression that they had watched it together.
The reason that so many people watch it and are profoundly influenced by the events that unfold during the tournament can be traced back to the above-mentioned idea that football is a powerful sport. It has proven capable, time and again, of bringing people together despite cultural, political, or religious differences. France’s 1998 World Cup-winning squad, nicknamed the Black-blanc-beurre (a clever play on France’s tricolor), was seen a direct reflection of the country’s diversity and a triumphant one at that. And in 1990, Germany lifted the trophy just 7 months after the country's reunification.
Sometimes the pitch becomes an extension of geopolitical conflict. The aforementioned 1986 game between Argentina and England, in which Maradona scored that infamous goal, occurred only a few years after the two countries had gone to war over the Falkland Islands and the contest was decidedly hard-fought. On the other hand, a 1998 match between the USA and Iran led not to confrontation between the athletes, but an exchange of white roses and photographs — though the result, an Iranian win which eliminated the United States, surely carried more weight in Iran given the political circumstances.
In other cases, the grandeur of the event has spurred quasi-magical runs, like South Korea’s foray to the semi-finals when the country co-hosted the tournament in 2002 (although, friendly officiating may have helped). It has also spurred moments of sheer madness, like Luis Suarez’s infamous goal-saving (and elimination-saving) handball against Ghana to secure Uruguay’s passage to the tournament’s semi-finals in 2010.
This year’s edition is not short on story lines, both sporting and cultural. Take the case of Egypt — the Pharaohs are set to make their first appearance since 1990 and only their third ever, largely powered by their marauding forward Mohammed Salah. Salah is the type of player who mesmerizes fans regardless of patriotic allegiance. But, in Egypt, where the sociopolitical climate is tense at best, his footballing genius is one of the few things Egyptians can agree on. It illustrates the World Cup’s ability to transcend —and hopefully mend— social differences and bring countries together, even if only for a month. Except now, Salah might not play. It will become one of the defining dramas of the World Cup, regardless of whether he plays or not. If he doesn’t, or plays poorly, it will become a ‘what if’ scenario; but if he puts on a masterful display it will be akin to a miraculous performance defying the limits of the human body.
Then, there is the story of Peruvian captain, Paolo Guerrero, suspended from the World Cup for having unknowingly ingested a small amount of cocaine in tea. Guerrero’s would-be competitors, the captains of Peru’s Group C rivals, wrote to FIFA asking that the ban be binned to allow the veteran to suit up. It is set to be Peru’s first World Cup in 36 years and other athletes realize how much it means to compete in one — Guerrero is 34, so this is quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Even when Guerrero would strengthen the Peruvian selection, players from other teams are willing to stick their necks out to get him in the tournament, which speaks to the transcending magic of the World Cup.
It’s this sense of both drama, but unity, that makes the World Cup so compelling. There are always bound to be human stories that develop over the course of the month that captivate audiences around the world. Then, of course, there are the more local ones, that each national team’s home country are enraptured by. There are political ones, too, where games are given meaning they don’t have by pundits, or where the players take it upon themselves to hash out differences or settle scores.
There’s no telling what exactly will happen. But that’s exactly why the World Cup matters to so many people: the supporters of each of the 32 countries believe that they have a chance of winning. For some that means lifting the trophy, for others that may mean only scoring a goal, or winning a first World Cup match in national history. Regardless, it is that sense of hope and uncertainty that makes the World Cup a must-watch spectacle on both a sporting and human level.
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