For the next month or so, as various bands of balletic, histrionic, and tireless men kick, head, dribble, and chest the Jabulani soccer ball to the infernal din of the South African vuvuzela, cultural differences between countries as unsuited to each other as Brazil and North Korea, Cameroon and Denmark, Ghana and Germany, Paraguay and New Zealand, Argentina and Nigeria, will dissolve as surely as an ice-cube does in a glass of single malt.
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Of all the team games that are played in the world, only one—soccer—is irrefutably universal (and yes, that includes Arizona, where Hispanics, legal or otherwise, are known to play something they call “futbol”). Every other team game—the noble cricket, the actuarial baseball, the brutal rugby, the cartoon-costumed American football, the primitive ice hockey, the invigorating field hockey, the carcass-strewn buzkashi, the absurd kabaddi, the pseudo-aristocratic polo—is peculiar to a country, a region, a language group, or an ex-colonial context. Every other team game, however spellbinding or brutal, graceful or epic, rule-bound or free-for-all, lacks that transcendental ingredient of symphonic, globally comprehensible, non-pedantic vigor that soccer possesses. This factor, I wager, entitles soccer to be ranked among the 10 greatest inventions in human history, alongside (in no particular order) fire, money, electricity, the wheel, wine, the flush toilet, bikinis, democracy, and the Internet. It is certainly (along with the sedentary chess) the foremost ludic—or play-themed—invention of mankind. (I am, here, treating sex not as an invention but as the acting out of an instinct.) So as soccer unfurls on our televisions—whether on Univision, with its operatic, deep-lunged, fast-talking, unembarrassable commentators who live for the moment when they can scream “ gooooooooooool,” or on ESPN, with its coolly English and Scottish bank of commentators (the inept American commentators having been cut from the cast, gracias a Dios!)—it behooves Americans to take a modest, humble backseat, and spend a whole month learning about the arts and methods of a glorious game, and of the countries that play it.
• Full World Cup Coverage: Photos, Videos, Stories• Gretchen L. Wilson: Will the World Cup Start a Riot?The Diamondbacks, the Lakers, the Giants, the Jets, the Rangers, the Devils, the Whatchamacallits—these teams, these names, these confections of pumped-up confrontation, these fat tires of hype, pale into inconsequence when you utter the word “Slovakia”… or invoke the magic and energy of a confrontation over 90 minutes on a soccer field between Slovakia and Paraguay, two land-locked countries blessed with little else by God other than an ability to love soccer; or when you consider the marvel that this soccer World Cup features only four of the 10 most populous countries on earth, and only seven of the most populous 20. How eye-catching it is, and how confounding, that you have neither China nor India at play—both unable to qualify despite having, each, more than a billion people—and instead have not one but two Koreas in the tournament.
Both North and South Korea are playing, though sadly—imagine the tension, the theater, the Tom Friedman op-eds!—they are not in the same group. (Come to think of it, there are very few historically or geopolitically explosive matchups: England vs. U.S.A. on Saturday is the closest one gets to an encounter that is fraught with more than sporting history. Germany vs. Serbia, one might say, comes close, for it was Germany—with its premature recognition of Croatia as an independent state—that sparked the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, of which Serbia is the rueful rump. Portugal vs. Brazil offers a spicy matchup, you’d think, of ex-colony and ex-imperial power; but in matters footballistic, as everyone knows, Portugal is the peon and Brazil the aristocrat.
At the very least, let American parents with kids who play soccer—is there a suburban family that does not fit the bill?—use this World Cup to teach their children about not just the complexity of their weekend sport, but also of the countries who play it. Ask little Rachel to find Paraguay in the atlas; ask Jack to name the African countries taking part; ask Tamiqua if she can find where Slovakia is; and ask them all to practice their Spanish—especially if they’re in Arizona—by watching a game or two on Univision.
Then watch in wonder as they kick, head, dribble, and chest the ball around the backyard, pretending to be Drogba, or Anelka, or Kaka, or Messi, and screaming “goooooooool” as they pound the ground of a universal game, a global jamboree. What a sight that would be, what a lesson from soccer.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)