What is the big deal about the World Cup soccer games? In the event you have missed all the excitement, be aware that these games are the biggest sporting event in the world. My crack research staff, ever aware of my abysmal level of sports knowledge, has me reading How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer and The Thinking Man’s Guide to the World Cup edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. So, watch out, newly acquired soccer knowledge soon to be dispensed with aplomb.
More seriously, The Christian Science Monitor has a great piece on the meaning of the games. The headline tells the story: “World Cup Boosts Growth, Binds Ties, Even Sparks War.” Got your attention yet?
Brazilian banks will close early, British productivity will nosedive, elections in Mexico could be affected, the fate of the French prime minister may hang on results. The event will touch even the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, where scientists have set up a live Internet feed so as not to miss the action.
And at the grand finale on July 9, as many as a billion people – one-sixth of humanity – are expected to watch 22 men, adept at propelling a piece of leather around, compete for the ultimate victory in team sports.
Germany is bracing for 4.5 million fans to arrive for the matches. The rest of the world is working to accommodate broadcasts. World Trade Organization negotiators have agreed to end meetings at 4 p.m. in time for kick-off. In China, 70 percent of football fans said they planned to watch all 63 matches, even though most will take place in the middle of the Chinese night. In the Koreas, North has turned to South for help with rebroadcasting, so its people can see some of the action. And Arab leaders are scrambling to help poor citizens see the games after a regional pay-TV network bought exclusive broadcasting rights.
Another reason for the overwhelming popularity is that soccer is so pervasive. The international soccer federation FIFA has more members than the United Nations (207 vs. 191). Two years ago, 198 countries started out trying to qualify for this summer’s finals. The game has taken root in so many places because it’s so easy to prepare and play, according to Fernando Soares Schlindwein, an academic from Brazil.
“The nice thing about football is that you can play it with anyone with almost anything,” he says. “People play with fizzy drink cans, or oranges, or socks rolled into a ball. It unifies people from all social class.”
Defeat, however, can have a deleterious effect: Britain’s Labour government in 1970 blamed electoral defeat partly on England’s sudden exit from the World Cup a few days earlier. Andrés Escobar, a Colombian defender who scored on his own goal in the 1994 World Cup, was shot dead upon returning home.
Economies, too, may not escape unscathed. Academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology contend that a World Cup defeat has, on average, led to sizeable stock market falls in the country concerned. Winning the Cup, on the other hand, normally adds around 0.7 percentage points to the victor’s economic growth, according to economists at Dutch Bank ABN AMRO.
Ultimately, it’s just a game – isn’t it?
Well, evidently not.