Now that the 2010 World Cup is over, my life has returned to normal.
No more 7 a.m. games eating up my mornings, nor 1130 a.m. games consuming the early portions of my afternoons. Of course, I enjoyed watching the matches immensely, but investing the kind of time necessary to do so, when the games sometimes occurred two times a day for a week straight, after nearly a month a grind begins to take effect as things you need to take care of (like writing more blog posts) are gradually pushed into a World Cup-less future.
Luckily, towards the end the pace slowed significantly, and in the last week there were only the two semi-final matches during the week and the two final matches on the weekend. But even so, I am relieved it is over, and happy that such a deserving side (Spain) took home the trophy.
Which brings me to the point of this post: the importance of the World Cup. All the pomp aside, all the image-maintenance aside, all the superficiality aside, it is truly a tremendous and exhilarating sporting event, the biggest of its kind in the world, the most-watched, and the most-attended.
700 million people watched this World Cup — fully 10% of the entire population of Earth.
The best part about the Cup is that it brings countries together. It represents the channeling of aggressive nationalism and cultural pride into healthy athletic competition, played out not on the field of battle but on the field of sport.
The 32 teams which opened this World Cup came from 6 continents and spoke a diverse array of languages, and yet they were all able to gather together for this event and agree to the same rules and the same regulations.
Naturally, as with any sporting event, some players bend the rules somewhat, but the overall protocol is never violated: no handballs; no back-passes; no grabbing, no rough tackles (or at least none the ref can see). If such things occur, penalties are given in a simple, transparent system that holds those who have “done evil” accountable.
Can we say the same about war? What rules does it adhere to?
In the 18th century, there was an attempt by the generals in charge of the standing armies of Europe to enforce a strict gentleman’s code in warfare: “Line up, shoulder to shoulder, march forward, and fire.”
British armies during the Revolutionary War, exasperated by American refusal to follow these strict rules of engagement, could do little to combat the guerrillas who sat up in trees taking potshots or scattered through dense forest to avoid taking on the redcoats openly. They had no recourse.
But in international soccer tournaments, no such exceptions exist. A nation either follows the rules, or it’s out of the tournament– a fairly simple way of enforcing adherence.
Moreover, there’s no real need for countries to violate the FIFA “covenant” because the advantages and benefits to participating in the tournament are apparent enough: national pride in seeing their best and brightest players on the field; visibility for their country, their culture and their flag; reputation and respect among and from the other nations; and all the other benefits which having a vibrant national soccer community and an international presence in the World Cup bring (besides sponsorship money from Coca-Cola).
And submitting to the rules of FIFA, of adopting the protocols necessary in order to sit at this equitable table with the other countries of the world, is no acquiescence or loss of sovereignty. It’s simply “fair play.” This voluntary agreement is, in effect, a Social Contract, albeit one which applies only within the context of the game itself, and of any other affairs related to it.
It’s this facet — of fans watching games together, and teams playing together — that belies soccer’s peaceful sidework, and the importance of the Cup itself.
On some level, it’s a major form of international cooperation. There are still rivalries, and underhanded tactics employed, but oftentimes these rivalries which hitherto brought blood and bitter hatred are reduced to near nonexistence.
The cooperation inherent between countries in the World Cup may have come more as an afterthought to a well-fought-for peace at some point in the distant or recent past, but the cooperation is there, all the same, and it is difficult to imagine two peoples brought together to a common place for a sporting event in a common theater finding a pretext for war, especially in this age, when we are increasingly aware of the extent to which the entire world is inextricably connected.
And, I think, gradually countries have come to understand that. They’ve come to notice that there is more prestige involved in winning an international soccer title (and similar peaceful perks) than boasting that they’re the World’s Wackiest Autocracy (I’m looking at you, Iran), or the Big Regional Bully on the Block.
And with every game, maybe a handful of fans from countries still ideologically, culturally, or ethnically opposed will be able to look one another in the eye and think, “He’s not so different. He’s a soccer fan, just like I am.” And that’s pretty neat, no?
Either way, when two bitter enemies (still technically at war) like North Korea and South Korea meet on the pitch under the auspices of the FIFA World Cup, battle it out, and fight to a conclusion, and the only blood on the field is likely to come from a botched tackle, I consider that blessed progress.
No guns, no bombs. Just football.
P.S. Thanks for watching the games with me, Alli!