By now a good chunk of the world’s population is caught up in football fever. If they haven’t traveled to Brazil for this year’s World Cup, they are joining billions of fans across the globe who are taking long lunches, skipping work and staying up late just to watch their country’s team play. We all know about the unifying appeal of sports. But there is something about this particular sport, played at the highest level, by your fellow countrymen that says, “I’m in!” More than just about sports, football is a global phenomenon that resonates universally, and gives us lessons in multiculturalism, diversity and geography.
The roots of the game itself have a global element. There’s not definitive source as to the first people to play what would become the modern-day version of soccer. But there are multiple references throughout history that indicate Greek, Chinese and Egyptian civilizations played games with their feet going back thousands of years. Indigenous peoples from around the world also played feet-based games. The Romans brought an earlier version of football to Great Britain centuries later. England of course is credited with creating the rules of the modern game and for taking it to colonized countries everywhere.
In the U.S., the game was first played in the early 1800s by colonists in Jamestown, Va. Colleges and universities and club teams helped the sport gain momentum and gave us the soccer hotbeds we have today in the Midwest and East Coast. The U.S. Soccer Federation formed in 1913 and the national team made its world cup debut in 1930. Rooting for Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Co. was only a matter of time.
Social media and technology further break down geographic boundaries. Watching matches on mobile devices delivers the world to tiny remote countries and puts little-known countries in front of a world stage. Fortunately the geography lessons seep into the subconscious, so that by the time someone tells you they are from Uruguay you won’t ask them where they learned Spanish.
The World Cup is a mélange of culture and race and ethnicity. An Italian coaches the Russian team, and a German coaches the U.S. team. The players on the clubs are diverse, too, a mirror of the multi-hued world we live in. And we learn about people and their countries thanks to the sights and sounds and colors on display from the supporters in the stands. While we show our individual patriotism, we also feel common emotions. No matter if you are from North Carolina or Northern Ireland. Just watch everyone take a deep breath when the other team threatens, then let it out, relieved if there is no score. And when there is a goal, hearts race and out come the goose bumps whether you are from the East or the West.
The World Cup is a mega event, and the center stage for an intoxicating sports experience. And while the beautiful game gives us fits and fever, thrills and chills, it also gives us a sense of oneness. The global game, originally played by many countries, today truly feels like it belongs to the world.
Tracey Savell Reavis is a journalist and sports historian who has worked as a reporter for Sports Illustrated magazine, staff writer for the National Basketball Association, and National Football League writer for CBS Sports. Reavis is a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians. Follow Tracey Reavis on Twitter @tsavellreavis and check out her Facebook page here. #BookofBeckham