While soccer has been exploited by some with malicious intentions (recently evidenced by the horrific suicide bombing that took 14 lives of World Cup-viewers in Nigeria), soccer has tremendous potential for promoting and facilitating peaceful intercultural exchanges and fraternal international relations.
Though this potential is relevant for all nations and peoples, it is especially important for Americans (in the narrow U.S.-centric meaning of the term, and not in the broader and more logical meaning of being from the Americas) due to Americans’ disproportionate impact on the world and due to Americans’ embarrassing and dangerous ignorance of other countries and other peoples.
As David Goldblatt put it in his voluminous and meticulous history of the game, “[s]occer’s mission in the United States is not, I think, to supplement or challenge American football, baseball or basketball but to offer a conduit to the rest of the world; a sporting antidote to the excesses of isolationism, a prism for understanding the world that the United States may currently shape but will increasingly be shaped by.”
Specifically regarding the World Cup host nation, a 2007 Zogby poll indicated that only 10 percent of Americans knew of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) — which was just after the charismatic leader was re-elected to his second term as president of the fifth biggest country on the planet (both in population and territory). Perhaps an even more shocking Brazil-specific example of American ignorance is former U.S. president G. W. Bush’s question to Brazil’s ex-president F. H. Cardoso in 2001: “Does Brazil have blacks, too?” Brazil happens to have more African descendants than the U.S. or any other country outside of Africa.
Such examples of American ignorance of Brazil and elsewhere are innumerable (I’m particularly tired of explaining to Americans that Manaus is a large industrial city — more populous than Seattle — in the middle of the planet’s largest rainforest and terrestrial carbon reservoir). How can Americans expect to lead the world if Americans have such a poor understanding of the world?
That broad generalization being said, the 2014 World Cup has thus far provided me with great hope that Americans are beginning to appreciate soccer and its uniqueness as a nearly universal passion, and that such an appreciation may help awaken many Americans to the diversity, complexity and beauty beyond American borders. For the first time in World Cup history, U.S. fans were the foremost purchasers of match tickets (besides host nation fans, who pay less).
During the first match of the U.S. team, ESPN registered a record-breaking 11 million viewers. I attended the U.S.A.-Portugal match June 22 in Manaus (because an American fan sold me an extra ticket the day before), and the presence of American fans was truly impressive. Despite the weakness of the U.S. team’s defense, which snatched an exciting victory from our hands in the final minutes, I left the stadium as hopeful as ever that Americans are indeed beginning to share the nearly universal passion for soccer.