Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 4, 2010

The Transcendant Power Of A Simple Game

The 19th edition of the FIFA World Cup is entering its final week of play in South Africa, the first time that an African nation has hosted the event. This might well not have occurred but for a short-lived FIFA policy to rotate the event among the major soccer confederations. But I’m glad that it did, because it illustrates the absolute global nature of the game, something that none of the major American team sports can claim.

The first two weeks of the tournament were given over to the group stage, with thirty-two teams divided into eight groups of four teams each. The members of each group played a round-robin tournament amongst themselves, with teams awarded three points for a win and one for a tie. At the end of the group stage the top two teams in each group, sixteen in all, advanced to the single-elimination knockout stage. Unfortunately for the host nation, the South African squad became the first host team in World Cup history failing to advance to the knockout stage. South Africa’s 1-1-1 record in the group stage tied them with Mexico for second place in Group A. However the hosts lost out on the first of several tie-breaking procedures, having a net goal differential during the stage of -2, while Mexico’s was +1.

Aside from South Africa’s disappointment, the group stage produced two other notable stories. The first was the defeat of both finalists from the 2006 World Cup and the particular humiliation of France. The French team is a long-time European power, with five appearances in at least the World Cup semi-finals and one championship in 1998. But this French squad should not have even been playing in South Africa. In a qualifying elimination match against Ireland, French captain Theirry Henry made a blatant hand pass that led to the deciding goal. The pass was seen by millions around the world, but somehow escaped the notice of the officials at the game. FIFA refused to allow a replay of the game despite the tainted goal. When France completed the group stage in last place in Group A, with just one tie and but a single goal scored in three games, no one much beyond Paris and Marseille was shedding any tears. Defending champion Italy also failed to win a game, finishing last in Group F.

The other remarkable and decidedly more positive development was the fact that all five South American teams advanced to the knockout stage. The South American confederation is the only organizing body to ever accomplish this feat; though since this was the 7th time they’ve done so it may be starting to seem routine.

During this past week knockout stage play demonstrated that getting to the second round is one thing; winning the Cup is another. Despite South America’s group stage dominance, as the world gets ready for the semi-final matches mid-week and the runner-up and championship contests next weekend, three of the four finalists are European teams: Germany, Netherlands, and Spain. And the most surprising development of the tournament is that the one remaining South American team is Uruguay, not Brazil. The prohibitive pre-tournament favorites, the Brazilians were knocked out by the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.

Of the four semi-finalists, Germany is the clear favorite on paper. A three-time Cup champion, the German team holds the record for most semi-final appearances at eleven. They go into the semi-finals with a staggering +11 goal differential. Little Uruguay has two championships, including the very first World Cup in 1930. For either the Netherlands or Spain, a championship would be their first.

But for me, an American who is not a soccer fan and who certainly doesn’t grasp the nuances of the game, the real wonder of the World Cup is not about who wins but about the passion that the event generates. I may not get soccer, but as an avid fan of several sports I certainly get passion. And the way this quadrennial tournament of men’s international football always transfixes the globe transcends everything else in sports.

I spent some time in Manhattan while the group stage was underway. Bars were crowded literally to overflowing with fans watching the games. But their focus on what was playing out on the flat screens up on the walls was so great that I’m not sure the bars were even turning a profit. Walking the streets of Midtown I saw normally jaded New Yorkers dressed in the colors of the country of their birth; or was it the country of their great-great-great grandfather’s birth? No matter. For one month in every forty-eight this game produces national pride, and in defeat national despair, in nations otherwise both powerful and meek on every continent. Nothing in American sports comes close. Yes, millions around the globe tune into the Super Bowl. But that is as much an exercise in modern popular culture as it is about sports. And yes, we call the championship of the Great Game the World Series. But even though I’ve been reading box scores for more than half a century I know that the Game’s global appeal is tiny compared to soccer.

I believe that a large part of soccer’s transcendence is its fundamental simplicity. Not that the professional game being played out in South African stadiums is simple; far from it. But at its most basic level the game requires only a ball about nine inches in diameter, some reasonably flat ground, and something that all players can agree represents the goal. A game that can be reduced to that level is a game that can be instantly translated into a hundred languages. It is a game that can be played in any country without regard to that nation’s GDP. And because of that universality, an international tournament to which seventy-six nations have sent teams at least once has become an opportunity for every participating team to score a defining moment of national honor. That moment is not solely about winning the championship. For some teams that moment may just be qualifying for the tournament, or a single goal, or a victory over a special rival, or a first advance to the knockout stage. For others of course, expectations are higher.

But however defined, fans of many countries have experienced such moments watching the action in South Africa these past three weeks. For the four remaining teams more await in this final week, leading of course to the ultimate moment for the last squad standing. I have seen them myself since mid-June; when I heard the similarly-dressed patrons at the bar on the corner of 30th Street and 3rd Avenue joyously erupt as one, when I saw on television dozens of identical flags waving madly in a South African stadium as the vuvuzelas droned like angry bees, when I knew that in some distant land people were literally dancing in the streets. And having seen all that, I readily acknowledge that for its singular ability to imbue entire nations with a special moment of pride and accomplishment, it really is a beautiful game.


  1. Nice!!! I’m tuning up my vuvuzela for the final games

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