The World Cup Couldn’t Have Come at a Better Time

In a world that appears more divided than ever, one sporting event has the power to bring us all together.

Max Garcia
May 16, 2018 · 7 min read
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The other day I found myself listening to old World Cup songs, both the official tracks, and ones made by World Cup partners and sponsors. My favourite is still the Coca-Cola Spanish Celebration mix of Wavin’ Flag, a song by K’Naan featuring David Bisbal, which was produced for the 2010 tournament in South Africa. It demonstrates perfectly how the World Cup is more than just a football tournament — it’s a celebration that brings people together and has the potential to foster peace and harmony between opposing sides of a conflict.

In the song, K’Naan says: “Give me ‘Freedom’, give me fire, give me reason, take me higher. See the champions, take the field now, unify us, make us feel proud. In the streets our heads are liftin’, as we lose our inhibition. Celebration, it surrounds us. Every nation, all around us.”

These powerful lyrics by K’Naan are still as relevant today as they were 8 years ago (and probably, moreso). The world is in a period in which there is a rising fear and hostility towards anything that appears to be different, whether it be beliefs or physical appearances. While there is no denying that throughout football’s history there have been unceremonious episodes of racism, hooliganism, and violence, the upcoming FIFA World Cup arrives at a time when we need it most, and has the potential to guide the world back into the path of acceptance and celebration of who we are.

The Numbers

If we look at the stats and projections for the upcoming FIFA World Cup, and compare these to the attendance and viewings of the last Olympic Games it’s easy to get excited. The reason why I compare the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics is because the two are the sporting events that people from all around the world pay the most attention to.

Some stats for the FIFA World Cup are set in stone, such as the fact that there are 32 countries with 23 players each. That’s a total of 736 players. On the referee side of things, there are 36 referees and 63 assistant referees, representing a total of 46 different countries.

While these numbers don’t compare to the hefty stats from the Rio 2016 Olympics — 205 countries and 11,384 athletes — the attendance and viewership numbers compare very favourably, especially when you consider how much more limited the field is in terms of the number of nations involved.

2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa (64 matches):
3.1 million attendees
2.2 billion viewers
909.6 million viewers watched at least one minute of the World Cup Final

2012 London Olympics (302 events in 26 sports):
8.2 million tickets sold
3.6 billion viewers
900 million viewers watched parts of the Opening Ceremony

2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil (64 matches):
3.43 million attendees
3.2 billion viewers
1.01 billion viewers watched at least one minute of the World Cup Final

2016 Rio Olympics (306 events in 31 sports):
6.8 million tickets sold
3.6 billion viewers
342 million viewers watched parts of the Opening Ceremony

Projections 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia (64 matches):
4.02 million applications for tickets by January, 2018

When compared to other sports, there’s no denying that football is the most globalized in the world. The only thing that is required to play is a ball. You don’t even need a net to play the game, as people can play using made up nets — such as having big rocks or garbage cans serve as the goal posts. This is why you see football played in almost every single country. Football has no boundaries. It is played by people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, cultures, races, and genders.

There is something universal about the game of football. The great German player Franz Beckenbauer said it perfectly: “Football is one of the best means of communication. It is impartial, apolitical and universal. Football unites people around the world everyday. Young or old, players or fans, rich or poor. The game makes everyone equal, stirs the imagination, makes people happy and makes people sad.”

Football is a sport that is very easy to understand. The rules are simple. The game doesn’t have commercial breaks (aside from half time), and there aren’t many nuances to the way the game is played.

One aspect of the FIFA World Cup that allows people to come together, is its scheduling. Each team is guaranteed at least three games, with two of those games coming at a unique time in which no one else is playing.

This gives fans the opportunity to fully invest themselves in the World Cup spirit by having the opportunity of watching almost every single game. Needless to say, when someone’s country is playing in a World Cup game, it is very likely that the whole country freezes to watch the game. With the Olympics, it’s harder to find a sporting event in which a country stops what it is doing to get together and watch the competition. This is because there are many matches, from many sports, going on at a time.

History of the FIFA World Cup striving to end national/international conflicts

The FIFA World Cup has served as the spark to end or ease tensions that countries might be facing. This is true in both national and international situations.

After three years of civil war from 2002–2005, Ivory Coast’s qualification to the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany helped end the conflict. In the post-game interview of the match that secured their World Cup aspirations, star player Didier Drogba (playing for Chelsea at the time) addressed his country with some powerful words: “Men and women of the Ivory Coast, from the north, south, center and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared objective: to qualify for the World Cup. We promised you that the celebration would unite the people. Today, we beg you, please – on our knees – forgive. Forgive, forgive. The one country in Africa with so many riches must not descend into war like this. Please, lay down all weapons. Hold elections, organize elections. All will be better.” In 2007, a peace agreement was signed to end the war, with Drogba being cited as one of the main influencers to strive for peace.

Internationally, the FIFA World Cup has helped countries ease tensions that they have with one another. In 1998, the United States and Iran were drawn into the same group. In what was expected to be a highly tense game due to the political conflict between both countries, the opposite happened. Each of the Iranian players from the starting lineup gave a bouquet of white flowers to an American player. After this, both teams posed arm-to-arm for a joint photo, putting any political differences aside. A small, yet powerful example of how the FIFA World Cup helped to bring countries together in harmony, even if just for the duration of a game.

The FIFA World Cup and the United Nations have strived to use the power of football to bring countries together. Prior to every game in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the following words were stated: “Today we come together to strive not only for victory in the game, but also for the victory of peace. Brazil, the United Nations and FIFA wish to share a message of peace, tolerance and respect for human rights. United in spirit with all players, officials and fans around the world we join our voices to fight all forms of discrimination and in favour of mutual respect, regardless of gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, religion or class. These are universal values and aspirations that we pledge to continue to promote in this World Cup and beyond.” I expect the upcoming FIFA World Cup to have something like this prior to its games.

Recently, negative episodes have taken place in the stands of football stadiums. Earlier this month, the Russian Football Union was fined £22,000 because fans yelled racist chants against French black players. Both the FIFA and the Mexican Football Federation have issued warnings and asked some Mexican fans to stop homophobic chants against the goalkeepers of opposing teams. Furthermore, Russia is currently seeing a rise in neo-Nazi football hooliganism lead by Denis Nikitin. While these and other forms of hate are real threats and might be encountered during the event, the World Cup has demonstrated that it has the power of being the catalyst for healing and change.

Football is the most widely played and viewed sport in the world. It is the only event, within and outside of sports, that can have more than 1 billion people in the world do the exact same thing, even if it is only for a minute. The FIFA World Cup couldn’t have come at a better time. In a time in which we are are more divided than united, it might just be the event that we need to come together in celebration.

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