Why I Love the World Cup (And No, It Has Nothing to Do With Politics)

I don’t follow soccer (or as I will refer to it henceforth as fútbol, because it makes sense and I want to). I don’t follow most sports, actually, except for tennis and occasionally the NBA Finals, and even those aren’t as common anymore. Unless I’m in a stadium or arena, sports rarely inspire me to feel anything other than “Ah, something’s happened,” and that’s not a very rousing sentiment.

But the World Cup does something to me. Granted, the not-so-hidden indiscretions of the FIFA planning committee and the Brazilian government don’t make me super fond of this particular iteration, though it’s served its role as prompting discussion about what global / large-scale sporting events do to the local economy in impoverished areas. (So… that’s good.) John Oliver gives a pretty succinct breakdown of the fundamental issues with FIFA in general. And I don’t even fully understand the rules and regulations of the game, so there’s no technical reason for me to like the World Cup as much as I do. But yet, somehow, on the day of the first game (yesterday, June 12), I get so pumped!

There are several reasons for this.

  1. Fútbol is universal. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure people are sick of this egalitarian argument, but there’s a lot of social merit to it. Golf tournaments are elitist and boring. For many, that’s the same argument for tennis (and my argument for baseball; most dull sport I’ve ever seen). American football is a joke, which is why I have never made an effort to understand it and I probably have never seen more than 15 cumulative minutes of the Superbowl in my entire life (and all of those minutes were probably by accident). Rugby, American football’s equivalent, is just as barbaric in form but far more civil in practice – still, only practiced in a select number of countries. Basketball is the next most widely popular sport, and I am actually a huge basketball-as-a-sport fan, but the global tournaments are not nearly as unifying as the World Cup.
    But fútbol, played by every demographic in every country and nearly equally by both genders, is a cause that everyone can get behind for whatever their own reasons might be. There’s something so spooky and endearing about the fact that you know the whole world (or at least a significant chunk of it) is watching the games along with you.
  2. Fútbol is civil. I know that fútbol has caused broken noses and screaming, angry fans and riots in the streets, but for such an adrenaline-spiked sport, it’s surprisingly calm. One of my favorite parts of any fútbol game is just after the end, when the players strip down (oh, hello..) and hug each other. What sportsmanship! What positive vibes! Maybe it’s because after hours of running back and forth across the length of a fútbol field, the players don’t have the energy to punch each other in the face. But it’s just as well, because…
  3. Fútbol is hot. Let’s be real. The players are sexy as hell, rivaled only by basketball players and surfer/snowboarders. I don’t think that there’s any question that these hunky jugadores are the real reason the World Cup is such a success, but if you need any proof, watch Beats’ latest “commercial” / video and this (misleading) Buzzfeed article about the sexiest bearded men competing this tournament. (ETA: In case you’re wondering how I feel about that 1-5 slaughter… well, obviously I’m still on Team Spain.. also, #14, Elvish, WHAT?!) For real, they’re perfectly sculpted athletic gods, which makes sense because (see John Oliver’s explainer above) fútbol is a religion. If the FIFA made a Dieux du Stade calendar for the World Cup, I might just convert.
  4. Fútbol isn’t pretentious / at a distance. If fútbol were to be closest to any organized religion, it would be Buddhism – it doesn’t force itself on others but still accepts new followers with an enthusiastic willingness to teach. I’ve never had a fútbol fan question or chastise me for not following the sport; they just explain the rules, invite me out, and gently encourage me to exercise. And that’s what I love about it! Fútbol fans usually play fútbol! I don’t understand rabidly obsessing over a sport that you yourself would never play competitively, because it seems like false transference of emotions, false empathy. That’s why the only sports I watch are tennis and basketball, two that I myself have played competitively and thus understand, in some way, as an adrenaline-producing experience. It seems bizarre and exclusive to obsess over American football or baseball or hockey or whatever if there’s no opportunity for an outsider to gain an emotional hold on the game and all that sustains interest is culture and tradition.
  5. The World Cup is an international game. This might seem redundant, but it’s actually a really important point. The World Cup is international, so everyone in the world has some stake in the outcome (or at least has a home team they could root for, even if they didn’t qualify). And it’s a game. I repeat, it’s a game. Despite the fanaticism that results from huge tournaments like these, it really feels like fans and followers are enjoying themselves, as are the players. It doesn’t feel like a death match, or some deep-seated cultural clash, or an orchestrated act of propaganda. It honestly feels like, to me as a casual watcher, a friendly communal once-every-four-year extravaganza that pits the best of that country (or adopted country, as is the case with a few) in an arbitrary, non-capitalist game! And that’s awesome.
  6. The World Cup isn’t disparate. It’s a single sport played over a consistent period of time with a consistent pattern of elimination. It’s very easy to visualize and understand, and timing it (especially this year) isn’t a pain in the ass, like with the Olympics. In many ways, I didn’t watch the Olympics because 1) it got bogged down with the political baggage happening around it; 2) deep-rooted nationalist ties made every success or failure the subject of a conspiracy theory; 3) the Games themselves were the background to the symbolism, the festivities, and the gossip; and 4) there was just too much to see! The World Cup doesn’t have this problem. Pick a team. Pick many teams! Watch them three times over two weeks. See who continues. Follow the round of 16, then 8, then quarters, semis, and finals. Cheer for the winner, regardless of who it is. (For the second time, I’m rooting for Spain! Super pumped on the game going on right now.) Talk about the match(s) that happened that day with others who watched the exact same game. Reset for the next day. Streamlined! If the Olympics were to catch up, they’d have to focus on the sports that have the most universal appeal, and not dilute the fanaticism of the whole event by dedicating time to lesser-known sports (in the case of Sochi: ski jumping, curling, luge, etc.).
  7. The World Cup is fun to watch with people. I have fond memories of watching the last World Cup. I watched the 2010 finals (rematch happening now!) while curled up in one of Cloyne’s lounges, recovering from a particularly memorable night with some delicious breakfast cooked for me by the guy I was seeing. I was surrounded by a packed room of very excited (and informed) fans, all of whom kept me up to date with their body language as to what I should be watching for. It’s good to have friends in the know!

At its core, the World Cup is what every international competition seeks to be: a fun, global event centered around a sport that almost everyone plays and filled with athletic eye candy. What’s not to love? Now I’m going to stop writing this blog post and get back to watching!