The World Cup Brings Us Together

…like no other sport can.

It’s 7 AM on a Sunday morning in Sacramento: June 20, 2010. I stumble into Hot Italian, my local pizzeria, and get my bearings. Inside, the herbaceous aromas of pizza fill my nostrils and tantalize my tongue. Making my way through an unusually large crowd at this early hour—a time that I would usually be asleep if it were any other day—I head toward the back of the room where the large screen TV is illuminating the reason why I am here: the World Cup is on and it’s being broadcast live from South Africa. It’s Italy vs New Zealand, and they’re playing in Nelspruit, South Africa, where 38,229 people have managed to pack themselves into Mbombela Stadium (capacity: 40,929). But that’s not what really brought me out here.

In front of the big screen, I see the real reason I’ve bothered to drag myself out of bed and venture into this establishment for the first time: two old friends whom I’ve had the good fortune of knowing since I was just six years old: David and Jason. Had it not been for David suggesting that Jason and I pile in here with the rest of us and watch this game, I’d be fast asleep and the world would have passed me by. Instead, I’m having the time of my life being introduced to the one sporting event I now actually care about.

Around me are people from all parts of the world with all sorts of different allegiances. Many Italians around me (we are in an Italian pizzeria after all!) are wearing a mixture of solid blue jerseys, the color of Italy’s uniforms, or other Italian attire. My friend David chooses a shirt that shows his support for Team Mexico, from which his family tree germinated. Me, I’m just wearing whatever I wore that day. Nothing special… just a teamless guy with regular clothes, who had no idea what the World Cup was or what it meant.

In 2010, the World Cup was played in South Africa and the noise maker of choice was the vuvuzela. One vuvuzela isn’t so bad but tens of thousands can be deafening and incredibly exciting depending on how much the sound annoys you. To me, it only added to the intensity of each match. As each goal came close to being scored, the intensity heightened both in the stadium, in the room, and at our table. Too much fun!

When our pizza arrives at our table, it’s toothy grins all around as we dig into the good food. Before 7 AM that morning, I had no interest in the World Cup and certainly never would have gone inside Hot Italian since my wife’s gluten-free and we make our own pizza at home. However, I’ve now formed an opinion on what the World Cup means to me: an opportunity to (re)unite with good friends and family to watch an exciting game where the atmosphere is electric almost the entire time. It’s a chance to visit with a friend who at the time lived half a world away in Romania, but was here for the Summer. It’s an opportunity to create memories with good friends I’ve had since I was six, and can also be an opportunity to create new memories with new friends I’ve yet to meet.

This time around in 2014, I’ll be wearing a United States jersey and with any luck David will be in town again—he currently lives in Chicago. I’ll be hoping that Jason—who back in 2010 didn’t have kids or a wife but now soon will have both—will be able to slip away from parental duties just for a little while so us three amigos can mosey into Hot Italian for another chance to be a part of something fun that capture’s the world’s attention.

I haven’t looked it up but I’ve got to believe that soccer must be the one sport on the planet that is played by almost every country on the planet.

OK, I couldn’t help it. I looked it up. Indeed, it’s true:

World Cup (WC) Map:
Blue: qualified for WC
Yellow: failed to qualify
Black: did not enter WC
Gray: not a FIFA member

Unlike baseball, basketball, rugby, tennis, or any other sport… it’s soccer (or whatever it’s called across the world)—and more specifically the World Cup—that has the power to bring people from all corners of the world together to celebrate good times, upsets and triumphs. In 2010, it brought three friends together that were literally half a world apart. In 2022, I hope it’ll bring those same three friends to Qatar, the host country for that year’s Cup.

After that morning at Hot Italian, I went home and penciled out the rest of the World Cup games on my calendar, then watched as many as I could online since I was now hooked on the energy it fed me. In a way, I came for the friends, then stayed for the World Cup. I confess: I don’t watch soccer during the regular season, but then neither do a lot of Americans watch football during the regular season when they sit down to watch the Super Bowl.

That’s the power of the world cup, to me. It’s all the fun of a Super Bowl with rules that are easy to understand and anyone can follow, which makes it a truly global game that has the potential to bring the entire world together, if only for a brief period of time. It brought three old friends together, after all. Why not 7 billion? Doesn’t seem like too daunting a task.

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