The Beautiful Game – Why Soccer Rules The World

By Sean Wilsey

There are many beautiful things about being an American fan of men’s World Cup soccer—foremost among them is ignorance. The community in which you were raised did not gather around the television set every four years for a solid, breathless month. Your country has never won. You can pick whatever team you like best and root for it without shame or fear of reprisal. You have not been indoctrinated into unwanted-yet-inescapable tribal allegiances by your soccer-crazed countrymen. You are an amateur, in the purest sense of the word. So with the World Cup taking place this month in Germany—and the World Cup is the only truly international sporting event on the planet (no, the Olympics, with their overwhelming clutter of boutique athletics, do not matter in the same way)—you can expect to spend the month in paradise.

That’s what I do. The world of the World Cup is the one I want to live in. I cannot resist its United Nations–like pageantry and high-mindedness, the apolitical display of national characteristics, the revelation of deep human flaws and unexpected greatnesses, the fact that entire nations walk off the job or wake up at 3 a.m. to watch men kick a ball. There are countries that have truly multiracial squads—France, England, and the United States—while other teams are entirely blond or Asian or Latin American. A Slovakian tire salesman, an Italian cop, or a German concert pianist—having passed the official fitness tests—will moonlight as referee. There are irritating fans: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” (Blessedly few.) There are children who hold hands with each player as he walks onto the field. National anthems play.

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Men paint themselves their national colors and cry openly at defeat. An announcer shouts “GOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLL! GOL, GOL, GOL!” on the Spanish-language channel you’re watching. (It’s often the only way you can see the game live.) There are two back-to-back 45-minute segments without commercials. To quote the book every traveling athlete finds in his hotel room: “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.” Or, as my copy of “Soccer and Its Rules” says: “Are you ready? Ready to cheer the players to victory, marvel at their fitness, speed, and skills, urging them to win every tackle for the ball, ready to explode at a powerful shot? Ready for the excitement of flying wingers, overlapping backs, curling corners, slick one-two passing and goals scored with panache? Ready for another moment in a fantasy world?”

I am ready.

Soccer’s worldwide popularity isn’t surprising when you look at what has always motivated humanity: money and God. There’s lots of money in soccer, of course. Club soccer (like capitalism) is basically the childlike desire to make dreams come true, no matter what the cost, realized by men with enough money to combine such commodities as the best Brazilian attacker, Dutch midfielder, British defender, and German goalie and turn them loose on whatever the other billionaires can put together—an unfair situation that describes much of the world these days. But the divine’s there, too. What is soccer if not everything that religion should be?

Universal yet particular, the source of an infinitely renewable supply of hope, occasionally miraculous, and governed by simple, un-contradictory rules (“laws,” officially) that everyone can follow. Soccer’s laws are laws of equality and nonviolence and restraint, and free to be reinterpreted at the discretion of a reasonable arbiter. What the ref says goes, no matter how flagrantly in violation of dogma his decisions may be. My official rule book, after presenting a detailed enumeration of soccer’s 17 laws, concludes that the ref can throw out any of them in order to apply what it rather mystically calls “the spirit of fair play.”

The religious undercurrent in soccer runs especially deep in World Cup years. Teams from across the globe converge on the host nation in something of an unarmed, athletic crusade. As in the Crusades, the host nation tends to repel them. There’s a weird power in home-team advantage. Hosts find a level of success disproportionate to their talents on paper, triumphing over stronger teams, as if exerting a gravitational pull on the game, causing it to be played the way they want to play it, as if, to carry this metaphor to its inevitable conclusion, God were on their side.

From: National Geographic

(Read Sean Wilsey’s entire essay “World Cup 2002: Recap, Results and Statistics.” He is the author of the memoir Oh the Glory of It All and the editor-at-large at McSweeney’s Quarterly, a literary journal. )