Thoughts on the World Cup

Although world championships are played off in many sports throughout the year, the grand-daddy of authentically “world” titles is of course the World Cup–by which I mean, although it generally goes without saying, the World Cup of men’s soccer, or what the rest of the world calls football.

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This year’s World Cup seems especially charged politically, what with questions about Brazil’s spending on tournament infrastructure and the general ethics of FIFA, the international body that sponsors the event. Globally, football is known for extreme fans whose behavior, sometimes tainted with racism, can give sports partisans in general a bad name. At least during the World Cup even “ultra” fans tend to be on their better behavior.

But in the end, we can reliably enjoy the spectacle of sixty-four high-quality 90-minute-plus games in which athletic and sometimes flamboyantly energetic young men will play their hearts out on behalf of their countries and the spirits of several billion(!) fans will rise and fall with the results of each game. If you enjoy soccer–the geometry, the energy, the cunning strategies, and the astounding skills of the players–the World Cup 2014 is pretty much guaranteed to please. And of course there will be controversy; a disputed call in the very first game, between Brazil and Croatia, already filled Thursday’s news reports.

For the Interested Child, the Cup offers lessons in geography, vexillology, culture, and of course the sport itself. Soccer itself spread across the globe with the British empire and was then adopted by populations far removed from British influence. The World Cup tournament teams themselves, often unexpectedly diverse, also offer little object lessons in both the history of imperialism–think of so many African players with surnames of European origin–and recent and contemporary demographics; think of the many European and American (North and South) players whose surnames bespeak the waves of emigration and immigration that are changing the face of many of the world’s more prosperous nations. The players may be wearing the uniforms of just 32 nations, but this truly is a World’s Cup.

The enormous geographical and climatological diversity of Brazil offers its own points of interest: the U.S. team will be traveling nearly four thousand miles just to get from venue to venue in its first three group games, from coastal Natal to Amazonian Manaus and back to coastal Recife. A search of various maps of the tournament cities can give a sense of the overall size and geographical extremes of Brazil. And some of the new-built stadiums themselves are architectural marvels, aesthetically exciting structures with breathtaking tensile roofs above the stands and open space above the playing surface, or pitch.

The child interested in numbers and statistics can also find a world of data to record and parse, and, thanks to the prevalence of gambling across the world, it’s not hard to find odds (ratios, of course) and other measures of probability relating to teams’ chances and overall outcomes.

And even if the politics or the big business side of the World Cup make it a bit different from, say, the Olympics, the tournament still marks a few weeks in which we can contemplate the idea that, with all our differences, we are one species and one planet, a great many of whose inhabitants seem to be fans of the sport of soccer. Or football–take your pick!

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