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Love and Devotion: The World Cup and the 'Religion' of Soccer

It seems that the only means of explaining the phenomenon of the World Cup is through categories and concepts that we usually reserve for the religious and the sacred.
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I was sweating profusely, which didn't help with my lack of excitement about the whole day. When you are 14 years old, the idea of doing anything -- especially anything to do with your parents on a perfectly good summer day -- isn't usually met with much enthusiasm. My friends were at the beach, and here I was parking a mile away from the Rose Bowl to see a World Cup match with my family. Don't get me wrong, I loved sports growing up and played football (soccer) from the time I was five years old. I should have been pumped about getting to see a World Cup match. I should have been grateful for the possibly once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness the USA play in the Cup on its home soil. I wasn't. I was sulking. I was deep in Pearl-Jam-inspired teenage angst and not prepared to let anything, including USA vs. Romania, snap me out of it. But when we got into the Rose Bowl, I realized very quickly that this was not like any sporting event I had ever been to in my life. I had been to high school football games, Dodgers games, a pro basketball game here and there, and even some UCLA football games in that very stadium, but this was something altogether different. There were 94,000 people chanting, cheering, and singing for every minute of three hours. We stood up at every corner kick, yelled at every foul called, and sunk in defeat when the final whistle blew with team USA losing 1-0. In three hours, the World Cup had transformed me from a sulking, silent teenager into a zealous kid who begged his mother for a $5 World Cup shirt outside of the stadium.

That was my first moment of realization as to the magnitude and nature of the World Cup. It was different. It was special. It had an energy, a passion, and a sense of importance that I had never associated with sports. At that point, I didn't understand that football is truly a world obsession. FIFA claims that over a billion people watched the last World Cup final, which, even if it is somewhat exaggerated, dwarfs the Super Bowl's estimated 100 million viewers in 2010. As a 14-year-old, I didn't realize how comical it would be to most of the world that my only soccer coach (my father) had never played or watched a minute of football when he started 'coaching' my team when I was five years old. Further, I didn't realize that the mystifying energy of the Cup could be transformed into tragic violence, as when the Colombian player who scored on his own goal against the USA was shot in the street in his own country shortly afterward; nor did I realize its ability to cause governments and religious institutions to reflect on their own policies and rules (see: Muslim women petitioning successfully to celebrate World Cup victories in the same stadium as men). For me, that day was the beginning of a journey.

When I went away to Oxford to pursue a Master's degree a decade after my first encounter with the Cup, I had a chance to experience what it is like to watch/live the World Cup in a country that is truly obsessed with football. In 2006, the normally study-obsessed students pulled themselves away from Kant and Hegel in order to watch every minute of every match. Everyone from posh schoolboy undergrads to very committed and hermitic doctoral students from Korea, Romania, and the States huddled in a room from two in the afternoon to nine at night, yelling at the television during matches involving not only their national teams but those between Japan and Brazil or Germany and Morocco. When it was over, I felt like I truly didn't know how to go back to 'real' life or a 'normal' schedule.

I have been waiting patiently for the Cup ever since then, but if I am honest, I have been waiting with a tempered approach, not expecting that watching it here in the States would ever be quite the same experience. And then it happened: the Cup caught me off guard one more time. I turned on the television a couple of weeks ago to watch a basketball game; on a commercial break, Bono's voice came on the television over a dramatic crescendo, amidst a video collage of striking global images:

"It's not about politics, or the economy, or religion."

My attention went from being nervous about the Lakers' game to the commercial.

"It's not about borders, history, trade, oil ... "

I started actively wondering what it could be. After all, it was Bono speaking -- it must be something of gravity, right? Had Bono solved the problems in the Middle East? Had he found a way to stop global warming?

"It's not about hope, change, fear, or loathing. It's not about communism, socialism, or capitalism."

Wow. Wow! What is Bono talking about? I was on the edge of my couch, leaning forward in eager anticipation.

" ... war or peace, love or hate ... "

This doesn't exist. This must be some advertisement for a product -- Pepsi, or U2's next tour, or the iPad.

"It's about the one month every four years that we all agree on one thing."

The flash to a stadium filled with cheering people made me realize that he was talking about the World Cup. I should have known all along. I should have known all along that this was the only thing grand enough to conjure such a cosmic mode of foreshadowing without being forced, corny, or merely hype.

Now, you may not like sports. That's not the point here. You may not care that football is the world's game, and enjoy touting the gridiron, or basketball, or baseball as true sports -- truly American sports. Again, not the point. And, you may abhor the notion of associating something like football with religion. I agree, in some sense. However, Bono's voice caused me to ask myself if the commercial's message was merely a way to advertise ESPN's coverage of the event, or if there is some truth to the matter.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have decided he is right. The World Cup is not about politics, or economics, or religion. It is not about hope or love or fear. It is not about peace, violence, hatred, or change.

The World Cup is not about any of those things, because it is about all of them. Like anything sacred, it relates to the mundane and the normal through a paradoxical balance of transcendence and immanence.

If it is not about religion, it seems that the only means of explaining the phenomenon of the World Cup is through categories and concepts that we usually reserve for the religious and the sacred. In a strange way, the World Cup is about none of the forces that overshadow the day-to-day concerns of human life. The Cup is a very elaborate ritual, played out on the largest global scale possible. It transcends politics, economics, and religion by incorporating all of them. It does so by juxtaposing people, groups, national identities, particular belief systems, and political circumstances in manners that simply do not happen in any other setting. In 2006, the small African country of Ghana handed the USA a humbling and hope-crushing defeat. Where and how else in the world does that happen? In the first week of the 2010 Cup alone, Cameroon meets Japan, Argentina confronts Korea, and the freed colonies of the USA revisit mother England. You might tell me that the Olympics do the same thing. True, the Olympics provide a panoply of countries competing against one another in various games. But the World Cup does so in a concentrated setting vis-à-vis the one sport that throughout the world -- from Ghana to Germany to Senegal to Korea to Mexico to Chile to Slovenia -- creates overwhelming obsession, unbridled devotion, and, sadly, violent fanaticism. Starting to sound like religion yet?

The World Cup shuts down cities for entire days; it draws out the hopes and fears of entire nations; and, just like I found out as a sulking 14-year-old boy, it creates a sense of communal energy and passion that reminds me of what Émile Durkheim called, "collective effervescence." Since that day at the Rose Bowl I have only experienced tat kind of energy one other time: at a religious revival in a packed stadium of 20,000 people in Urbana, Illinois.

You may not care about football or sports or anything like it. I understand. But, if you have never experienced the phenomenon of the Cup, go down to a local pub and watch a match. You may have an enjoyable time with some new friends, but, if you are lucky, it will be much more than that: you'll walk out with a hoarse voice, a cheesy $5 t-shirt, and a childlike excitement for a truly unparalleled global phenomenon.

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