Can you still argue “it’s just a game” when that game has the power to halt wars, sentence players to death and bring more countries together than the United Nations? That’s the question we are asked every four years when the FIFA World Cup rolls around.
Maybe it depends on the country you’re from. Europeans are more likely to argue that soccer is more than just a game than Americans would. But regardless of where you’re from or what sport you watch, the World Cup is the most important sporting event of all time.
The World Cup only happens once every four years and it engulfs the world in a way that Americans can hardly fathom. Two hundred and five countries participated in the qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup. That’s 13 more countries than the United Nations. Soccer may not garner much excitement here in the states, but with over 3.5 billion fans worldwide, it is an incredibly popular sport.
When we think of soccer, we often think first of Europe, of England and of David Beckham. But nowhere is the popularity of soccer more obvious than in Africa. In 1969 Nigeria was engulfed in one of its bloodiest civil wars to date and no amount of negotiators or emissaries were making a dent in stopping the violence.
Apparently they hadn’t thought to send a soccer player. The arrival of Brazilian soccer legend Pele in Nigeria resulted in a three-day cease-fire between the government and the upstart Republic of Biafra so that Pele’s club, Santos, could play in a couple of exhibition matches against local teams. A similar story unfolded more recently in the Ivory Coast.
The Ivory Coast suffered five long years of civil war when Didier Drogba led the countries national soccer team, The Elephants, to the World Cup finals in Germany in 2006. Drogba, like most soccer players who have dedicated their lives to their national team, loves his war torn nation and just wants peace for his people. So when surrounded by his teammates in the dressing room, he picked up a microphone, dropped to his knees on national television, and began pleading for both sides to stop their fighting.
One week later a ceasefire was agreed upon by the warring factions culminating with their leaders standing side by side for the national anthem at an African Nations Cup Qualifier. When Didier Drogba is in town, the people of the Ivory Coast gather to cheer for him as if he were a king, because to them that’s what he is.
While these stories of soccer and civil war are both powerful and uplifting, there is an uglier side to this passion. On June 22, during the 1994 World Cup, the United States upset Colombia by eliminating them from the tournament early with a 2-1 defeat. Colombian defender Andres Escobar was blamed heavily for the loss due to an “own goal” where he accidentally deflected a cross into his own net.
On July 2, Escobar, having returned to Colombia after the disappointing World Cup, was gunned down in a parking lot. Eyewitnesses confirmed that his attackers shouted at him for scoring the own goal before shooting him multiple times with a handgun. Escobar was brought to a hospital and pronounced dead on arrival.
We see from these stories the awe-inspiring and sometimes horrifying power of soccer. It’s a power that shapes the world, that seeps out far beyond the confines of the stadiums where the game is played.
For Americans, this level of passion is hard to comprehend. We have never had a sport that we associate with on a cultural level. Football is extremely popular in the U.S., but so is baseball. Meanwhile there are countries in Africa where children are brought up with a soccer ball at their feet. We do not have any one sport that we are so passionate about it pervades our culture and our way of life.
That is why the World Cup is the most important sporting event on the planet. Soccer is a sport but it’s also a culture and a history. Whether you love soccer for its beauty or you think it’s boring because nobody ever scores, the World Cup is an event that we should all follow.
Because by following the World Cup we don’t just follow a sport. We expose ourselves to the world. We watch history unfold and we see a diversity of countries and cultures. By playing in the World Cup we prove that we are willing to participate in that diversity and that culture, even if it’s a sport that we aren’t the best at.
The World Cup is an opportunity for us all to learn, to grow, and be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves. Can you still argue “it’s just a game”?
Zach Pearson can be contacted at