Every four years, the world stops for one month and watches the World Cup. There is no other sporting event like this on the planet. There is no other single event that can have an impact on a nation like this game. Soccer is the great equalizer. It does not know race or religion. There are few sports, if any, that can make as strong of a political statement as soccer. Even when a host country is in a state of unrest, soccer is the calming force that joins us all.
If a country wants to make a political statement, the World Cup is one of the most peaceful and powerful ways to demonstrate beliefs. And there’s quite an audience watching. (There is an estimated cumulative viewership of 35 to 40 billion people.) Many countries have used the World Cup as a forum to express views. Britain refused to play in World Cups and withdrew in 1920 because they didn’t want to play countries they were at war with. I bet their government took note of that. Britain did not come back to competition until 1950. When the United States plays England this year, it could bring us back to a time when we were fighting for our freedom in the Revolutionary War. FIFA once banned South Africa during apartheid. Political protests are even being talked about for North Korea this year after the unprovoked sinking of a South Korean ship. Rick Chandler, a writer for NBC sports, said the “world at last has a chance to give the giant foam middle finger to actual North Koreans in the flesh.” There are so many more examples I’m sure you can think of, but you get the idea.
Later this month, the World Cup will be played in South Africa, a country stricken with instability. Some of the roots of soccer in South Africa sprouted from a group of men on Robben Island. Prisoners demanded for years to have the right to play soccer while they were jailed, only to be turned down numerous times. Finally, they were allowed to play, giving them not only something to pass the time, but a way to earn respect. After watching this clip below, I was very moved by the courage and restraint these men showed. Soccer was an outlet. It made a statement to everyone on this island and around the world. What other sport can give so much to so many different people? For 90 minutes, pride for whatever countries you are rooting for can ooze out of every pore. As we watch the World Cup this year, soccer will unite us all no matter what country we live in. For one month, we can put aside our differences and rejoice in watching a game so beautiful, it can give men freedom.