Imagine this scene: People from many nations, from all walks of life, converged in a single location; in the ‘arena,’ or more aptly, the playing field, the two contenders for supremacy face off. The wall-to-wall crowd cheers lustily, groans audibly in disappointment, throws rubbish (a bottle or two, paper balls, what have you) in disgust, does the Wave or the ‘raise-the-roof’ sign, or angrily howls in protest, all the while bellowing choice invectives and ’original’ jeers for good measure. Like the Indian warriors of old, some even paint their faces or bodies with the colors of their favorite teams. Depending on which side you cheer on, the announcer’s stentorian cry of “GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAL!” and the sight of that familiar black-and-white ball rocketing into the net can either send you in throes of ecstasy or sink you into the depths of despair.
This, friend, is that game called soccer, the veritable new religion hereabouts. The recently concluded World Cup matches in Germany have once again underscored the unrelenting passion for soccer. Eager and excited throngs that have attended all public screenings of the hugely popular sport where teams from 32 nations converged on a single playing field have fired the imagination of still countless others who were unable to view the matches ringside and instead made do with kibitzing in crowded smoke-filled pubs and gawking at the television, all the while downing the liquor of choice. Indeed, the sight of so many rabid soccer fans is awesome, to say the least.
It would not be unrealistic to say that for a variety of reasons, soccer is akin to religion:
Soccer can and does provoke violence, unfortunately. Recall those images on TV of mobs pummeling each other, all hell breaking loose at the stands, or fans chasing each other with murder on their minds, all in the name of THE game. This is a bad case of admiration taking the extreme route and becoming obsessive near-hysteria. Hitherto calm and ordinary-looking blokes can suddenly do a Jekyll and Hyde to become screaming banshees frothing at the mouth, spewing unthinkable invectives at the object of their ire. Soccer can likewise incite patriotism and sense of ethnic identity to extreme levels, so much so that rivalries crossing over to fanaticism and morphing into other channels are not uncommon. Obviously, one of the new theaters of ‘war’ is the soccer field.
Like religion, soccer can be a bottomless source of hope, and provides basic and simple rules that most everyone can follow. So many youngsters have dreamed of making it big on the soccer field and gaining almost everything they ever wished for. Soccer has given people something to aspire for, to cheer. The appeal of the sport lies in its simplicity: no elaborate equipment is required, just a soccer ball, kindred spirits consumed by a deep love of the sport, and a level playing field.
Teams from across the globe gather in one location, just like a pilgrimage. World Cup matches are much-awaited and long-prepared-for events. Fans save up or reserve those precious tickets just to view their idols in action, demolish rivals methodically, and return to their ordinary lives flushed with the excitement of it all. No two matches are exactly the same, and so these are considered once-in-a-lifetime events, to be cherished and relived and replayed in the mind or the home video over and over again. Pan over to a scene where citizens exert much time and effort, and part with hard-earned money to make ready for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to sacred places in the world, there to worship, to reflect, to observe, to ponder and, perhaps, be sufficiently inspired to emulate the admirable qualities of the adored.
Soccer has its own heroes and icons, its own beliefs, rules, myths. Think of the legendary Pele or the stars of 2006 the Azzurri, Zinedine Zidane. Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose. Their faces are plastered in the newspapers, on the Web, they endorse commercial products such as apparel, shoes, timepieces, optical wear, cameras, automobiles, sports beverages, what-have-you — and they are paid handsomely for doing so, thank you very much. Again, the appeal to youngsters is subconsciously transmitted: Play soccer, and be one of us! Join our ranks, and be famous!
Like religion, soccer has the potential to help bridge differences and overturn national prejudices. It can be the unifying factor that many assemblies have sought for so long. People of various ethnicities, origins, and social status gather round to root for their teams of choice. When the World Cup was held in South Korea and in Japan in 2002, it was considered a momentous event, a ‘victory for tolerance and understanding.’ It is remarkable that South Korea has finally opted to share hosting duties for the tournament with its former conqueror — this within a span of less than five decades, transcending from its initial decision to bar the Japanese national team from crossing its boundaries to play for the World Cup qualifiers. Time heals all wounds, and memories do fade after all. Whatever vestiges remain is safely settled on the soccer field. And so it is that fans can look forward to watching England pitted against Germany, Iraquis against Arabs, and Americans against Iranians. As earlier mentioned, soccer is the new arena where you can settle old scores safely, with select combatants.
It wouldn’t be surprising if soccer spectatorship increases even further. Who knows how many youngsters are even now sharpening their skills, practicing ceaselessly, tirelessly perfecting their one-two passes and drills on some forlorn field? Although the aspirants are legion, only few are chosen or are qualified to replace the current icons that someday would have to retire from the sport that they love. Nothing has ever fired such passion or excitement in so many. As a parting pitch, Tom Hundley reported from London that “Christianity, with more than 2 billion believes, ranks second among the many religions of the world. Soccer is first.”