The Whole World is Watching

By Steven Stark


"""Though it may seem odd—especially to Americans—the World Cup is the planet’s most unifying event.""

by Steven D. Stark, 89.7 WGBH
Monday, June 7, 2010
This Friday–if you hadn’t heard–soccer’s World Cup begins its one-month adventure in South Africa. And for once, the cliché applies: The whole world really is watching.

Though it may seem odd—especially to Americans—the World Cup is the planet’s most unifying event. We are separated by languages, culture, tribal animosities, but throughout the planet everyone from North Korea to Brazil plays this game the same way—11 men on a side try to score goals for 90 minutes. There’s a story that the President of Bolivia once left his country to watch his team play in the World Cup. Shouldn’t you be attending to state business someone asked him. In Bolivia, the World Cup is state business he replied. And so it is just about everywhere.

It is that globalizing feature of soccer that tends to make Americans a bit nervous about this event, if not downright antagonistic. We tend to play sports that we invented and this one we certainly didn’t invent. And, as part of that, we’re used to dominating sports as we dominate so much and we certainly don’t dominate this one.

But because it is so universal, soccer provides a window into the souls of nations; in the same way that language or cuisine reveal a culture like Italy’s or Cameroon’s, so too does the way each team plays soccer and its fans relate to the game. Watch the Italians with their emphasis on artistry and technique, someone has said, and you begin to understand the attributes that gave rise to the Renaissance. It may be a bit of a cliché but Brazilian soccer reveals its carnival culture; German soccer its efficiency; the Dutch know how to use and create space on the field because they live in a crowded environment where that skill is essential. The English style, a pundit once said, is reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade – with similar results by the way, much to the chagrin of their fans.

It’s been said that Americans learn about the world through their wars; everyone else learns about it through soccer. For a month, why not join them?"

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor