How soccer might save the world

Par Anthony Philbin le 10 juin 2010

FIFA, the body governing the sport of soccer globally, counts some 207 countries as members. As Kofi Anan humbly admitted in a World Cup press release, the UN has only 191 members. This, and a number of other observations on what has become The World’s Game, were at the heart of Mr. Anan’s obvious soccer-envy in his latest message. In his own words:

“…The World Cup is an event in which we see goals being reached. I'm not talking only about the goals a country scores; I also mean the most important goal of all—being there, part of the family of nations and peoples, celebrating our common humanity.”

This, of course, is supposed to be the UN’s stock and trade. To those who delight in failure, and especially to those who delight in de-legitimizing the role and actions of the UN at every turn, the words of Mr. Anan are likely to illicit a familiar and eager hand-rubbing as he candidly admits to his agency’s less-than-global relevance.

But to anyone who follows sport locally as well as globally, Mr. Anan is only admitting what any politician anywhere is forced to admit at one point or another: people don’t really care much for politics; people care about their team.

Organized, competitive sport has done more to ease our path from clans to nations, from barbarism to limited civilization, than any other single form of human endeavour. It has allowed us to maintain and nurture our ancient instincts toward tribalism even as these narrow, local forms of identity were being superceded economically and politically through broader forms of governance. By taking our regressive, tribal need for competitive differentiation, and accommodating it to non-military and economically non-disruptive athletic forms, sport has proven itself the great facilitator of civilization.

If we’re serious in our aspirations toward meaningful continental and global forms of political integration, the world will need a single sport; a simple and competitive athletic focus that will allow every country to maintain a passionate national identity—even as nations and peoples become increasingly integrated through the inevitabilities of cooperation and immigration. For a number of reasons, soccer seems poised to inherit this role.

The fact that soccer only requires a ball and two sets of posts means that it can be played anywhere there’s a field or a backyard, an alleyway or a gymnasium. Soccer is played by young and old, excelled at by the poor more so than the rich, and has long ago transcended all cultural, national, economic and geographic boundaries.

Though it is certainly not the only sport with a dynamic international federation and following—many others can lay claim to these benchmarks—no other form of athletic competition can boast that they so effectively capture the passion and imagination of the entire globe, holding it transfixed with the intensity and spirit of soccer’s World Cup.

The Olympics do beg consideration here, but the summer and winter Games are more nebulous, their events collectively more prone to favor one country or another due to geography, tradition, or simply training budgets. Soccer suffers from similar criticisms but to a much lesser degree across the board. And for whatever reason, Olympic Gold will simply never engender the public celebrations that erupt so spontaneously during the beloved World Cup. 

Soccer’s great enemies on its path to global destiny are civilization’s oldest and greatest enemies: religious extremism and commercialized warfare. So long as military conflict is permitted to act as a funnel for trillions of taxpayer dollars into a few very greedy hands, and spurious religious leaders can prey on the economic and military victims of this cycle, twisting their faith and manipulating their despair to breed hatred, intolerance and violence, the sport of soccer will be denied its ultimate mantle and humanity its ultimate peace and prosperity.

For the time being, those of us waiting for soccer to save the world must be content to celebrate its lesser glories: its golden goals, its ecstatic fans, and at least the stirrings of global consciousness it elicits. Although the latter, for now, may serve merely to prop up World Cup advertising creative or frustrated international bureaucrats, soccer’s ability to accommodate our anachronistic tribal nationalisms will give our emerging identities the legs to foster meaningful and permanent forms of cooperative global organization.

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