Why the World Cup is Good for Us

I am the most unlikely of football (that is, soccer) fans. I learned to play in junior high almost fifty years ago, an idea that is most frightening. More recently I was present when my five-year-old nephew played in the final tournament of his league and scored a goal because as he was standing there gazing at the sky or his parents, the ball appeared, and though surprised, he kicked it in when the goalie, another five-year-old, was looking the other way. Don’t worry; they all got a plastic trophy, because this is all about fun and sportsmanship, right?

I have just now returned from a week in Sweden for the World Summit on Media for Children and Youth. Sweden doesn’t have a football team in the running, but it was preparing for last Saturday’s royal wedding between Princess Victoria and now Prince Daniel, a commoner. Changing planes in Frankfurt, Germany, last Friday though, was an entirely different reality. I even bought a pack of Official FIFA World Cup trading cards and am giving them to one of our sisters who was born and raised in Portugal; she’s a true fan.

I was in Rome on pilgrimage when Italy won the World Cup in 1982 for the first time since before World War II. A few of us were driving from our hospital, Regina Apostolorum in Albano, near Castel Gandolfo, to our Generalate on the other side of Rome when the news was announced. The usual forty-minute drive took more than two hours due to celebratory traffic. The joy was something to behold. Later that same year I was in St. Louis when the Cardinals won the baseball World Series, but the reaction of the crowds was nothing like that of the Italians. Our bookstore and convent were downtown and all we got for a prize was having our planters on the sidewalk destroyed after fans uprooted the flowers and planted empty beer bottles in their place. For that 1982 World Cup win, an entire country went nuts for hours, thrilled that their team, their country, had bested the best teams in the world. (I am sure some flowers got trampled on then, too.)

We all know why the United States isn’t behind soccer in a serious way, despite that almost all school children learn to play at a young age – there’s no money in it for advertisers, not enough profit. And if you are not on television, you don’t exist. Teams have tried over the years and who knows, maybe the US team will pull off a win this year and some bright soul will figure out that soccer is good television.

On the flight home from Sweden last Friday, I watched a 2003 German film, The Miracle of Bern (Das Wunder von Bern) about the miraculous win of West Germany at the 1954 World Cup match in Switzerland. The story is told through eyes of the young son of a man recently returned from a Russian work camp, damaged and depressed. The win for West Germany was a portend of things to come, a material and spiritual transformation for families and the nation. To me, the film epitomized why the World Cup is good for us, as citizens of the world.. This film won the audience award at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2003; put it on your Netflix list.

On that long flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Los Angeles, the pilot kept waking us up to update us on the matches. – no one complained!

We have the World Series of baseball, but its really just about us. in the U.S. and to some extent, Canada. True the Little League World Series is more international and inclusive, but there’s no follow-through to the major leagues except that some players come from a select group of other countries. Softball and baseball have been bumped from the summer Olympics. I know people from many countries who don’t like baseball because they don’t understand it. Soccer, or football, is a universal language that almost everyone on earth today understands. Like all sports, the playing field makes everyone equal , or common, and the challenges are a test of character, and skill,. The game plays out as a metaphor for life.

Football, or soccer, is the game for the global village. It draws us out of our silos and encourages people and nations to get along.. If we can respect one another for a month every four years, doesn’t it make sense that diverse countries can get along at other times by focusing on what unites us?

I came home to learn that conservative talk show hosts are having a field day making fun and political hay out of the World Cup. Well, too bad for them; they can play in their own sand boxes with their own select friends . I am following the World Cup, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if a team from the African continent won the trophy for the first time?

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