Sports
1:04 pm
Sun June 8, 2014

The World Cup Reminds Us That All The World's A Soccer Field

Originally published on Sun June 8, 2014 3:34 pm

The global reach of soccer never ceases to amaze me. I travel all over the world, sometimes to incredibly remote areas. More often than not, when I get there, somebody is kicking around a soccer ball.

It doesn't matter if it's Asia or Africa or Central America. Kids make a goal out of a couple of backpacks, throw out a ball and the game is on. The "ball" could be a knotted towel or a tennis ball or a tattered leather shell that's barely holding air.

The energy of the game is the same everywhere I go. A team of men in Turkey look a lot like a swarm of schoolchildren in Guatemala as they rush toward the goal.

For me, soccer serves as a barometer. In places where things are really terrible, where kids are starving, where a hurricane has just hit, where riots are breaking out, nobody plays.

But I've noticed what I call the "soccer stage" of recovery.

After any natural disaster, there comes a time when people start playing soccer again. In Haiti they're kicking balls amid the post-earthquake shacks. In Sri Lanka, they're setting up makeshift goals on a tsunami-stripped landscape.

In the Philippines they're playing in the streets even as typhoon debris towers behind them.

In nearly every peacekeeping mission involving France, a moment arrives when French soldiers swap their body armor for thigh-baring camouflage shorts and take to the soccer pitch. It's a moment of progress, a sign of hope. A frivolous diversion signaling that the conflict has ratcheted down at least a little.

With the World Cup about to kick off in Brazil, I'm nostalgic for Mexico. During the last World Cup, I was living in Mexico City. The month-long competition dominated the Mexican capital. Bars hung huge signs announcing what matches they'd show and when. My kids' school nearly shut down for much of the weeks-long competition. The teachers herded the kids into the gym to view the games on a giant TV. Kids were frantically trading playing cards trying to collect all the stars from all the national teams.

Similar soccer fever gripped most of the other Central American countries I traveled to during the competition.

But this global obsession with soccer doesn't happen only during the World Cup. Whenever the Spanish rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona clash, the oohs and ahs and screams of anxious fans reverberate throughout Latin America.

Kids all over the planet dress in the jerseys of their idols: Messi, Ronaldo, Alves and Casillas. The mini-stars recount the drama of a foul or a flop or a bending free kick that missed — oh! — just by inches!

Soccer touches some universal chord.

It's a simple sport that transcends language, that spans the world in a way that very few other human activities have. FIFA, soccer's global governing body, estimates that 3.2 billion people — roughly half the world's population — tuned in at some point to watch the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. This year the audience is expected to be even larger.

And even if my job takes me to the Central African Republic or some other remote country during this month's soccer tournament, I won't miss the action. I'm confident there will be television sets propped up outside people's homes, perched in store fronts and blaring from restaurants, all tuned to the World Cup.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Staying with the beautiful game, NPR's Global Health Correspondent Jason Beaubien says soccer is a sport that unites people like no other game can.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: For NPR, I end up traveling all over globe, sometimes to incredibly isolated areas. And more often than not, when I get to those places, people are kicking around a soccer ball. It doesn't matter if it's Asia or Africa or Central America - kids make a goal out of something, they throw out a ball and the game is on. The ball could be a knotted towel or a tennis ball or a tattered leather shell, that's barely holding air. It's the game that matters, not the ball.

Soccer taps in to some primal human drive. A team of grown men in Sweden looks a lot like a swarm of school children in Guatemala as they rush towards the goal. The energy of the game is the same anywhere on the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Goal.

BEAUBIEN: For me, soccer serves as a barometer. In places where things are really terrible, where kids are striving or where there are riots breaking out, nobody plays. But I've noticed, what I call in my mind, the soccer stage of recovery. After any natural disaster, there always comes a time when people started playing soccer again. In Haiti, they're kicking balls amid the post-earthquake shacks. In Sri Lanka, they're setting up makeshift goals on a tsunami-stripped landscape. In the Philippines, they're playing in the streets, even as typhoon debris towers behind them. And in nearly every peacekeeping mission involving France, a moment arrives when the French soldiers swap their body armor for thigh-baring, camouflage shorts and they take to the soccer pitch. Its a moment of progress, a sign of hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKA WAKA (THIS TIME FOR AFRICA)")

SHAKIRA: (Singing) The pressure's on. You feel it. But you got it all, believe it.

BEAUBIEN: That's Shakira singing what turned out to be an incredibly popular anthem for the last World Cup in South Africa. I was living in a Mexico city at the time. And my kid's school nearly shut down for much of the weeks-long competition. The teachers didn't just let the kids watch. They herded them into the gym to view the games on a giant TV.

And this global obsession doesn't only happened during the World Cup. When the Spanish rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona clash, the ooh's and ah's and screams of anxious fans reverberate throughout Latin America. Kids all over the planet dress in the jerseys of their idols - Messi, Ronaldo, Alves and Casillas. The mini-stars recount the drama of a foul or a flop or a bending free kick that missed, oh, just by inches.

Soccer touches some universal chord. It's a sport that links people, that spans the world in a way that very few other human activities can. So let the games begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN I KICK IT?")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Singing) Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can.

MARTIN: Jason Beaubien, NPR's Global Health Correspondent. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.