What makes the World Cup so special

In 2 days the World Cup begins. The largest event in human history occurs every four years, and while I won’t be at this year’s tournament in South Africa, I was lucky enough to take part in the festivities in Germany in 2006. We watched the US-Italy tie and the American’s loss to Ghana that knocked them out of the tournament. Sitting in the stadium, joining thousands of Americans cheer the US to a tie against eventual Cup winners Italy was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Many things makes the World Cup so great. The soccer is only one of them. So what makes the World Cup so special?

Common Passion

There’s a certain buzz in seeing a movie on opening night, especially when it’s hyped and appeals to like-minded people. But no movie could combine the years of anticipation, nationalistic overtones and exclusivity that comes from actually being at a World Cup match. Most people have been to events where the national anthem was sung. Some may even have been been overseas where the anthem served as a brief incursion of home onto foreign turf.
There are few experiences I’ve had like joining in with 12,000 Yanks to sing the Star Spangled Banner before the game. The sun was setting over the roof line, the weather was perfect and all the Americans were in the same sections of the Fritz-Walter Stadion in Kaiserslautern. After hours of waiting in line together, swapping stories of previous soccer experiences and World Cup forecasts, the game arrive with a slice of America sitting in the stadium united by a love for the sport that amplified the experience.

Contributing to Something

Scream at your television all you want, the team will never hear you. But time and time and time again, players cite fan support in buoying their spirits and acting like a 12th man on the field. Whether or not it’s true, the belief that it’s true gives every fan in attendance the belief that they may be able to participated or even contribute to the actual game. We can’t all be on the team, but we sat down thinking perhaps we could affect the team.
Ultimately I think the quest for significance is at the root of most people’s journeys in life. Sometimes that search is for ways to mean a lot, but sometimes that desire can be sated – at least in part – by meaning just a bit to something that is very important to many people. Whatever you think about soccer, it’s hard to argue with the impact it has on people.
The Honduran government has given all 200,000 public workers time off to watch their country play in the Cup. Some Hondurans cite the team’s success in qualifying as the force that kept the fragmented country whole. Honduras isn’t the first – the success of the Ivory Coast’s national team played a huge factor in quelled civic unrest in 2006. Iraq’s success in the Asia Cup brought a brief period of calm during the post-Hussein madness.

National Pride

You could watch Manchester United or Barcelona and perhaps see the best team in the world play. But those teams are driven to play by wages and transfer fees. But the national teams are different. They aren’t paid much (relatively speaking) to play for the homeland. The players can’t transfer either. Once someone plays for a country, that’s the only team he can ever play for *. And while I may get depressed at the US team’s performance (1998 anyone?) at the end of the Cup I’m still an American and they’re still the only team assembled to represent me. If my favorite club team, Everton, has a bad run, I could just start pulling for Fulham or Tottenham or some other team.
The players take the field for a more significant cause. The fans watch for more personal reasons. And in both cases, the games just mean more.

The Soccer

While it’s not the only reason the Cup is so special, it’s a big part. The World Cup is the biggest stage for the biggest sport in the world. To the elite players it is the ultimate proving ground. While a fear of loss has led to notable moments of bore, every cup (2006 | 2002 | 1998) is full of genuine quality.

This year I won’t be in South Africa. But I will be watching most of the games, some from home and some in Brazil. I hope the US can advance to the second round, and that our back line holds. I hope South Africa keeps the teams, fan and locals safe. I hope South Africa provides an environment that rivals what Germany offered in 2006. I remember so much of the games I had tickets for. But I also remember celebrating in Frankfurt’s Fan Fest with thousands of Britons as we watched Joe Cole stun the Swedes with an absolute gem. The world’s attention turns to South Africa for the next month and I can’t wait to see how the nation responds.

I’ll post my predictions on the Cup tomorrow, then I’ll get to the task of enjoying the month of matches when South Africa opens against Mexico, Friday at 10a (edt).


  1. Couldn’t you find a better 1998 highlights video? It had far too much hugging, dancing, clapping, and butt slapping; and not enough goals, passes, dribbles, and stops.

    It did have Bergkamp’s amazing goal, which was redeeming.

    Also, nice pics. :)

    Comment by Casey — June 9, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

  2. Find me a better link and I’ll amend!

    Comment by Nathan Clark — June 10, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

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