Then, when I moved to NYC, I met a friend from Argentina where soccer, or more appropriately, fútbol is like a religion. When she mentioned the name Maradona, and I didn’t know who he was, she looked at me as if I’d spat on her ancestor’s grave. It was equivalent of someone not knowing who Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan was, as Diego Maradona was one of the greatest football players and THE greatest Argentinian footballer in the history.
However, Diego Maradona isn’t exactly a household name in the US, nor is soccer one of the popular sports. In a country where The Business of Sports is a multi-billion dollar global industry propelled by enormous consumer demand worth over $400 billion, where everyday lives of Americans are bombarded by sports advertisements and where everyday citizens are all too willing to turn themselves into walking billboards for their favorite teams, we rarely catch a glimpse of soccer games on TV or even know that there is a major league.
However, I learned the importance of soccer, fondly refer to as the “beautiful sport” in most parts of the world, while living in Strasbourg. It was the summer of 1998, and the World Cup fever had taken over the entire country. As it was taking place on their home turf, the excitement was palpable, including in my language school that consisted of students from all over the world. It was a microcosm of the world, and every day, every encounter and conversations were consumed by the World Cup. In our limited French, we analyzed the games that already took place, some recounting play-by-play of every move, goal and even foul call. Sometimes heated, we debated who would win the next game, and which teams would most likely advance to the quarter and semi-finals.
For 30 days, it was as if the whole world was united in watching one sporting event, and most of the 32 countries that were competing in the World Cup were presented in my language school as well. It was a game that everyone understood, and it was exhilarating to share a common goal. I understood that soccer like religion binds the world together, and no other sporting event unites and excites people from every corner of it like the World Cup. More importantly, it’s the ONLY sporting event that I can relate to and talk about with my friends from all over the world, and wherever I travel to, from the depths of Amazonian rainforest to the heights of Eiffel Tower, I can talk about soccer with anyone I meet.
Especially after the ’98 World Cup Game, with France’s (3-0) win over Brazil, the entire country reveled in the victorious afterglow for months with Ricky Martin’s “La Copa de la Vida” blasting everywhere. I remember the pride that I saw in every French man, woman and child I’d encountered, as if the World Cup title was theirs and theirs alone.
I was hooked, and I have been a fan of the World Cup games ever since.
I was glued to the TV set while living in Germany watching the 2002 games in South Korea and Japan. I was basking in delight as I watched my beautiful country filled with soccer fans from all over the world and an enormous sense of pride as South Korean team advanced to the quarter finals. They placed fourth that year, which was an enormous accomplishment for a team that was composed mostly of young freshman players.
However, as I sat in the cafeteria of our Frankfurt office among my German colleagues watching the Germany vs. South Korea game, I was in quite a predicament cheering for the enemy, so to speak. Ironically, I was in a reverse position four years later, as I was living and working in South Korea watching the games in Germany.
Then again, that’s the beauty of the World Cup games. Being a spectator allows you to become a citizen of the world. Also, soccer is the only truly democratic game in the world. I mean, in what other arena, sporting, political or financial, a developing country like Brazil stands a chance against a superpower like Germany – and come out ahead most of the time.
That’s why soccer is the most popular sport in the world because it inspires us to believe and be part of the world. It’s about the game and the players, not simply about the individual country, and it unifies different people and cultures from all over the world.
As I watch this year’s games in Brazil, I will root for all of my teams, and think of all my friends around world and all the places I’ve called home.