As the summer of international soccer continues, with the Copa America Centenario, UEFA Euros, and Rio Olympics all falling within the same three month stretch, we are reminded that soccer is one of the few things that the entire world has in common. It's easily the most watched sport worldwide and soccer players are some of the most recognizable and highest paid athletes across the globe.
This popularity makes sense. The sport has been around for generations, with early versions of the game appearing 3,000 years ago in ancient China and modern rules adapted in England by 1863. Putting things in perspective, with this year's Copa America tournament, organized international soccer in the Americas has been played since before the United States became involved in World War I. Moreover, the transaction costs are extremely low, needing only a ball and flat surface to play, and the rules are fairly simple: don't use your hands, unless you are the keeper, and put the ball in the back of the net.
Although the United States is slowly catching up to the rest of the world in terms of overall popularity, soccer clearly has a rich history and global influence. All this said, is this influence positive or does it pull us apart?
Unfortunately, as long as soccer has been around, there have been examples of violence and xenophobia associated with it. Recent events at the Euros, including fights between fans, fire bombs on the field and Russian hooligans who are trained more in combat than drinking pints, serve as a reminder that animosity within sports is still very alive and the game can be divisive.
Even institutionally, soccer has shown that it can bring negative consequences. From corruption within FIFA to the construction of World Cup stadiums in Qatar that have a human cost on par with other tragic projects throughout history, all things done in the name of soccer are not positive.
Despite this, there are many benefits that soccer has to offer. First and foremost, international sport -- soccer in particular -- is a universal language. Nice things aren't always said in that language, but it does exist as a unifying form of communication and shared interest, which provides the opportunity for suspending certain beliefs to work towards the idea of a common goal. No matter how divided people are on certain issues, soccer can bridge that barrier, even when supporting different teams or coming from vastly different backgrounds.
And this concept of common ground or unity can lead to real change. Take for example how Nelson Mandela took advantage of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unify an entire country and stand up to injustice. By channeling the energy and sense of pride offered by a sport, Mandela was given the catalyst to incite real change. Soccer has this power and even then some.
Lastly, it's no secret that there are a number of different reasons why competitive sport is good for player and audience, both mentally and physically. When referring to competition on the world stage though, sports can serve as a friendly battle ground where competition between countries is not only valued but can thrive. Population size, GDP, military power and the like don't matter when two teams are facing each other on the pitch. Especially in today's polarized world, soccer provides an accessible medium for all to experience international pride while also equalizing the terms of competition.
However, when all is said and done, soccer is just a game. It isn't inherently good or evil, but much like religion, politics, or any other point of unification, it can be used with terrible consequences. As we begin wrapping up the Copa America and Euros and head towards the Olympics, it becomes our choice whether we use the international stage for better or for worse.
But until then, leave me alone because there are some great games to watch.