Hyperbole pumps through the body of international sport. Everything is world-class, the best, the biggest, the fastest. Problem is, most sports are parochial by nature and I don’t just mean Aussie Rules or lacrosse. Cricket isn’t even the most popular game in England, let alone the world and rugby the same. North American sports seldom appeal to mass audiences outside of the United States and Canada – baseball has pockets in the Caribbean and Latin America, hockey has slices of Scandinavia and central Europe, basketball exists in a handful of European states and American Football nowhere at all. Track and field, athletics, is universal but has severely limited mass following. There are always the anomalies, the eccentrics, but by and large the only genuinely international sporting obsession is soccer. Or to give it the correct name, football. Association football, as opposed to rugby football, was shortened to soccer but it’s mainly Americans who use the word.
The sports fetish in all of Europe, Latin America, Africa, large parts of Asia, the West Indies, the Arab world and the Middle East is football. It’s more popular than other sports in the US among young people as participants and beginning to catch on in China just as it did Japan and Korea. The Indian sub-continent remains relatively immune but give it time, give it time.
Because of this the World Cup – no need to qualify it with “football” or “FIFA” because there’s only one world cup – will change everything. No exaggeration. Every religion, race and political creed will live for a month though the prism of the beautiful game, the working man’s ballet. The latter is important – in spite of an attempt to make it more middle-class football is still tribal, visceral, the outlet for working-class and often oppressed people. It was, for example, the game of liberation in this year’s host country, South Africa. The Afrikaners played rugby, the English cricket, the blacks football. The game of dock workers and miners in England, factory employees in Eastern Europe, street kids in Brazil.
It’s the simplicity that attracts. A ball and a wall, a bit of road, a couple of shirts for goal-posts. No surprise, then, that an entire folklore grows up around the game and, naturally, intense domestic and international rivalries. The North Americans have franchises, football has teams. Fans refer to “we” when they speak of their teams, not “they.” At its ugliest this leads to violence but that’s extraordinarily unusual. It’s controlled fraternal passion suddenly unleashed.
This time round Spain has the best team player for player. But they’ve never won the World Cup and they have a tendency to under-produce in the big tournaments. Brazil’s older stars aren’t there this time but they have, as always, a wonderful team and may well win it all. England haven’t won since 1966 but made the semi and quarter-final. It’s possible, as are victories by Argentina or Holland. France, Italy, Portugal and Germany have arguably their weakest teams in a generation but they play the game beautifully and all of them have a couple of gods who could still upset the rest. As for the smaller powers, for most of them it’s just not going to happen. Then again we have to look at what their expectations are. For North Korea, New Zealand or Slovenia to be in the finals at all is remarkable and a triumph in itself. A lot of this is relative. If Brazil do not win they’ll see it as failure, if Australia got to the last eight it would be a massive success.
It’s those very differences, the clashing styles, the varieties of footballing cultures that are so appealing. The Germans play like, well, like Germans. The Italians? Obvious really. The former gave us Wagner, the latter Verdi. There are also the African teams, some of their players being millionaire stars but others quite humble journeyman. They won’t be joined by Russia, Ireland, Croatia and a whole host of other world-class teams who failed to qualify. George Best, an icon of the game, never made a World Cup because Northern Ireland weren’t good enough. Nor Ryan Giggs, the Welsh genius who will probably have retired in four years time.
You’ll see plenty of Muslim names – Algeria are there – as well as men making the sign of the cross and dropping to their knees in prayer. The religion, though, is the game itself for a lot of those playing and watching. I remember speaking to the head chaplain of English football a few years ago about the enormous banner at Old Trafford declaring that Manchester United was the religion. “Of course it irritates me”, he said, “but I understand. Oh yes, I understand.”
Try to understand. Choose your team, then your second team, then the ones you can’t stand and want to lose every game. Then just sit back and enjoy a truly international and unique phenomenon that takes the breath away and occasionally restores our faith that the world actually can come together without bloodshed.
Michael Coren is likely supporting England while watching the World Cup from Toronto, Canada.