Many of us get a tearful feeling of one-world happiness during the Olympics, but they are just a little country fair compared to the World Cup.
The World Cup, now being played in Germany and watched by three billion people on televisions around the world, is the closest the world ever gets to a universal passion. I must say I like the way it feels.
I'm not alone. Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald recently that the World Cup makes the UN "green with envy." As a game played in every nation around the world, by every race and every religion, he says, it is even more universal than his institution. And FIFA, the governing body of football, has 207 members. The UN has only 191.
"Only two commodities matter: talent and teamwork," Annan writes. "I wish we had more levelers like that in the global arena... Every country
getting a real chance to field its strengths on the world stage."
FIFA acknowledged this one-world approach when it chose as its official song "One," by U2. "One love/One blood/One life...With each other/Sisters/Brothers/One life/But we're not the same/We get to carry each other."
At our house, my husband has chosen to watch all the games on the Univision channel, in Spanish, because its sportscasters are so highly emotional. They certainly tilt towards the Latin American teams, but they go out of their minds with happiness whenever anyone scores a goal. It's the rarity, the difficulty, the combination of skill, luck and loveliness of a goal that counts. Shared recognition of accomplishment. Shared joy. They make it easy to get caught up in the games.
I notice, though, that if I'm rooting for a team that has no goals, and it suddenly makes two, I cheer and then switch allegiances. Does that make me a turncoat? Or has my knee been caught jerking again? Do conservatives only root for winners, I wonder, while liberals root for the underdogs? Or are our true responses more fluid, less rigid, more rational and more humane than we often give them credit for?
I wonder about cross-cultural communication. When Togo plays Saudi Arabia and the referees are from somewhere else, how do they talk to each other on the field? Universal signs of brotherhood appear often - the shared smile, the slap on the back, the touch of an arm. (And yes, I know, there are other universal signs - the kick in the leg, the elbow in the
ear.) Maybe football is the universal language we've all been looking for.
Come to think of it, where else do you see Togo and Saudi Arabia in the same sentence, much less in the same stadium?
I'm having my own cross-cultural experiences at home. Univision is a television network for Latin Americans living in the United States. These are the ones the conservatives are attempting to demonize. The aliens are among us! They're illegal! They're taking away our jobs! Hate! Faster, pussycat. Kill! Kill! Kill!
But watching the commercials, it's hard not to notice we're all pretty much the same. They drink beer, drive used cars, occasionally have stomach acid, and eat at McDonald's in Spanish, too.
Annan makes a point of noticing how much football has benefited from what he calls the "cross-pollination between people and countries." As more national teams hire coaches from other countries and as each country's professional teams become more internationalized, new ways of thinking and playing migrate across borders.
"Migrants not only build better lives for themselves and their families, but are also agents of development - economic, social and cultural - in the countries they work in," Annan writes.
It's hard not to be moved by the national dramas that are being played out. This is the first time, for example, that Ukraine has qualified for the finals since the breakup of the U.S.S.R. The players are finally playing under their own flag! And Serbia and Montenegro was a country when the team qualified - now it is two countries.
Poor, tiny and overlooked Togo, and Ghana, too, are so proud to be playing on the international stage. And Angola - instead of talking about Ebola viruses and civil war, the world is finally talking about its athletic accomplishments. The coach of the Ecuadorian team has a face with the whole map of Indian Ecuador written on it. It's beautiful to see it when it fills the screen - instead of the face of a tinpot general or a loopy Maoist, the usual Ecuadorian images we see for one second on the network news.
Is it possible the Americans are not playing as well as they should because they are the only team surrounded by massive security? Even their tour bus is unmarked. This may be a one-world World Cup world right now, but thanks to our political leaders, we may no longer be a part of it.
It's easy to marvel at the crowds and their strange costumes - why was the Swedish guy dressed like a rooster, for example? How can 30,000 South Koreans make so much noise? Answer: They brought drums.
The sheer beauty of the play takes my breath away. Like Barbaro before its broken leg or David Ortiz anytime, we are watching athletes at the peak of their physical form performing at the outer limits of their passion.
After the games? The world will probably revert to its second most-popular sport, war. But there's still some hope for the future. The Women's World Cup is played next year.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in Vermont and writes about culture, politics, business, and economics. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. Email to: email@example.com.