In two days, the world goes to war.
Here in South Louisiana, we should pay attention.
The greatest sporting spectacle on earth kicks off Thursday in Sao Paulo. The host nation of Brazil will take on Croatia to launch more than a month of soccer, with 32 countries from every corner of the globe playing 64 games in 12 cities. The total TV audience is expected to top 30 billion.
Across the planet, on every continent and in every time zone, men, women and children will be transfixed. We have the Africans, the Australians, the Asians — oh, and the Americans. Where else but at the World Cup does the schedule read Ivory Coast vs. Japan, or Nigeria vs. Argentina, or Bosnia vs. Iran? No other sport has that kind of global impact.
The World Cup feels like it’s just a step down from going into battle with an all-out military assault. Call it patriotism, nationalism or even jingoism and xenophobia, but right now all across the planet, the excitement and fervor is ratcheting higher as nations prepare for a sporting encounter like no other.
In 1969, the World Cup qualifying contest between El Salvador and Honduras was the tinderbox that lit a full-scale war between the Central American countries. In Argentina in 1978, the hosts eased to a suspicious 6-0 victory over Peru to qualify, a result that was “influenced” by the ruling military junta. In England, fans have smashed Mercedes-Benz cars after their team lost to Germany.
Think the NFL season is long and it takes months to reach the Super Bowl? How about spending four years just to earn the right to be among the 32 countries at the World Cup? Soccer governing body FIFA has 209 members; there are only 193 in the United Nations!
Playing in the European qualifying rounds are teams representing the likes of the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar and San Marino, matching up against the might of Russia and France. Many confederations have rounds and rounds of qualifying games just for the right to play more qualifying games — two-time winners Uruguay, for instance, had to come through 16 matches and then negotiate a two-legged intercontinental playoff against Jordan just to get to Brazil.
And in soccer — more than any other sport — anything can happen. Consider the winners of the past seven tournaments: Spain in 2010, Italy in 2006, Brazil in 2002, France in 1998, Brazil in 1994, West Germany in 1990 and Argentina in 1986.
In three decades, only Brazil has won more than once, while outsiders like South Korea, Turkey and Bulgaria have reached the semifinals recently. Uruguay has a population of just over 3 million, but last time out it made it all the way to the semis.
The history of the World Cup is littered with outrageous shocks, unpredictable scores and overachieving underdogs. Have a guess who was the only undefeated nation at the last World Cup? The winner, Spain? A traditional powerhouse like Italy or Germany? Or the samba boys from Brazil, perhaps?
No, the only team that left South Africa without a loss was … New Zealand. It tied all three of its matches with a squad featuring players who were not even full-time professionals.
In 1990, Argentina, which had won the previous tournament, opened its campaign against Cameroon, which won 1-0. I was working for a British tabloid newspaper in London at the time, and we immediately dispatched a reporter to Yaoundé to report back on life in the African country as if we were sending a war correspondent to the front lines.
Twelve years later, France was the defending champion — and rank outsider Senegal beat it 1-0 in its opening game. I remember a TV pundit saying, “I’ve never even heard of Senegal.”
“Well, yes, but it’s been in West Africa an awfully long time,” was his cohost’s patronizing response.
Back in 1982, my home country of Northern Ireland was in the grip of a civil war that ripped the tiny province in half. Thousands had been killed or maimed by gunmen and bombers, terrorists who frequently targeted others because they happened to go to a different church.
But despite our population of just 1.5 million, we became the smallest nation ever to reach the World Cup, and I traveled to the tournament. (Incidentally, one of the Honduran players I saw play against Northern Ireland is now a house painter in New Orleans.)
We had to beat Spain, the hosts and one of the tournament favorites, to progress. No one gave us a chance. The Irish players and officials had already checked out of their hotel, and the Yugoslavian delegation, confident of a Spanish victory, had flown to the next city to prepare for round two.
But even though the Irish had a man sent off and had to play with just 10 men, they won 1-0. The checking-in Irish players passed the checking-out Yugoslav players on the stairs of the hotel.
The pass that led to the goal came from Billy Hamilton — a Protestant — and was scored by Gerry Armstrong — a Catholic. Armstrong’s family lived in an Irish Republican area where many residents would not even recognize Northern Ireland as an independent country. But the next day, the paper’s front-page headline was, “That’s our boy!” and pictured his family celebrating the victory.
That’s the power of soccer. It can push nations to war — or pull divided people together.
Sure, there, will be uninspiring contests and matches that finish scoreless. There are 32 games before we even get to the knockout stage and, with so much at stake, caution is often the operative word. But trust me: There will be lots of excitement and drama, too.
So, for the next month, join the rest of the world and call it football. It won’t make you any less of a Saints fan.
And I promise not to tell Roger Goodell.
Stephen Rea is the author of “Finn McCool’s Football Club: The Birth, Death, and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead,” a book about a pub soccer team and Hurricane Katrina centered around a Mid-City Irish bar. He is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, but has lived in New Orleans for a decade. He will be contributing stories to The New Orleans Advocate throughout the World Cup.