Like many other Americans, I tuned into the finals of the World Cup, but not so much to watch soccer as to discover why it has such world-wide popularity. I have been a lifelong fan of baseball and football. I have some interest in basketball, although I have difficulty identifying with athletes who have knee caps higher than my head.
As for soccer, I have never felt a desire to follow a sport where a 2-1 score is seen as a blowout and where players run around in shorts banging a ball with their heads and feet. I feel for them. Don’t they just wish, once in a while, to grab that ball by their hands and fling it into the goal for a score?
So why do millions — no, billions — of people go so crazy over soccer? Why the passion for a sport that requires an unremitting attention span while waiting for that rare goal?
After watching the World Cup, I must admit I still don’t know what makes soccer so appealing to so many. There were moments of tension and stellar performances, and the lead up to France’s final win was dramatic. But for me, I’ll still take an Orioles-Yankees game on a warm summer evening.
What the World Cup finals did get me to thinking about was not so much the appeal of soccer but the nature of World Cup competition itself.
In most sports, fans root for teams that represent their cities, states or regions, but few if any of these teams’ players are from these areas.
But the competition in the World Cup is different. Here, the teams representing nations are comprised of players with specific ties to that nation. In the World Cup, the regulations are that a team’s athletes must be part of that nation by birth or naturalization, have a parent or grandparent born there or have lived there for at least five years as a continuous resident after the age of 18. This identity engenders emotional ties that were on display for all to see.
But there is another area in which the citizenry of nations compete so openly and fervently. That is in war.
In essence, the World Cup team competition is similar to war. Wars are fought between nations by their citizenry, and winning or losing on the battlefield becomes part of national identity and pride.
The World Cup also arouses nationalistic pride, but it does so in a positive way. A soccer match becomes war without the blood. Instead of bullets and bombs, teams use a ball. Instead of body counts, there are points on a scoreboard.
On one hand, it is strange that so much national pride can go into a game. But on the other hand, it is reassuring that when the game ends and the winner is declared, everyone in these nations accepts the results (or most everyone).
What if we could resolve other national differences on playing fields instead of on killing fields?
The answer of course is that war resolves differences and disputes by only one method: sheer force. A war usually ends when one side so defeats and demoralizes the other that the ability or will to fight is destroyed. Peace, if you want to call it that, then ensues. An athletic event is more about prowess than power, but the result — a victor and a vanquished — is the same. But the process is more humane. Not all disputes need be resolved by further strife.
It is eerie that the World Cup in 2006 was held in Germany, in the same now-renovated stadium where in 1936 Adolf Hitler hosted the Summer Olympics and tried to demonstrate Nazi superiority. That was also the Olympics where Jesse Owens, the great black athlete, punctured the myth of Nazi racial theories and perplexed Hitler by winning four gold medals.
If only that Olympics of 1936 could have resolved on the field the issues that off the field later led to World War II.
Also, when Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, the two finalists were France and Italy. All had been combatants in that world war, as were many other World Cup participating countries. Yet their national teams competed vigorously but amicably in soccer’s premier competition.
So there is hope for humanity. If only these many diverse nations would demonstrate the same sportsmanship on the world scene that they showed on the soccer field, then, in a paraphrase of the Bible, the world’s cup of peace would runneth over.
M. Hirsh Goldberg is the author of nine books and has served as press secretary and speech writer for a mayor of Baltimore and a governor of Maryland. His email is email@example.com.