It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the FIFA World Cup – after all, it is the Olympics of football (commonly known as ‘soccer’ in North America) for millions of fans and it is hailed as being the great global unifier by FIFA and promotional companies around the world. Sweat, tears, dramatic dives, cheers and the roars of a fans in stadiums and bars. What is it about the FIFA World Cup that gets total strangers high fiving and hugging each other?
Days before the kick off of the FIFA World Cup 2014 Brazil, Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations has hailed sports as having “the ability to unite us, and to show us what we have in common.” Football is the most recognized sport in the world with over 3 billion fans. As a sport, football defies the boundaries of geography and society. Football promotes teamwork and engages individuals to rely on one another to obtain the common goal of, well, a goal.
According to Franz Beckenbauer, the former player and German football coach and manager; “football is one of the best means of communication. It is impartial, apolitical and universal. Football unites people around the world everyday. Young or old, players or fans, rich or poor. The game makes everyone equal, stirs the imagination, makes people happy and makes people sad.” Football has shown itself to be a unifying denominator especially in war-torn areas of the world. It was responsible for the early cease fire between Honduras and El Salvador in the 1970 conflict between the two countries as qualifying for the World Cup was regarded as being the top priority. When Cote d’Ivoire qualified for the World Cup in 2006, the government declared free elections despite the civil war with rebels.
Humans are social creatures and the need to connect is a powerful drive. For fans supporting their national teams, it’s obvious that there will be a strong connection. But the country that you cheer for does not necessarily have to be your own. You could be cheering for the country that plays on the same continent or because you feel a connection to that country or because you might just want something to cheer for. The beauty of a sport like football is that it has the ability to garner a sense of camaraderie between fans.
Even the Pope believes football can unite. In a message sent out prior to the start of the World Cup, the football fan Pope Francis stated that football should be a “showcase for teamwork and solidarity”. According to the Pope, football has the ability to promote peace and solidarity because of the values it demonstrates: “the need to train and work hard to reach goals, the importance of fair play and teamwork, the need to respect and honor opponents.” In regards to sports in general, he says “sport is not only a form of entertainment but also a tool to communicate values that promote the good that is in humans and build a more peaceful and fraternal society.”
The FIFA World Cup has proven itself to be an international platform for cooperation in sports. FIFA has recognized their role in the ability to unite fans and players and have used their platform to bring social issues into light. For instance, in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, FIFA launched an interactive social media campaign to raise awareness on the important issue of racism. The FIFA #saynotoracisim campaign urges fans around the world to upload “selfies” with the banner #SayNoToRacism. According to FIFA, the objective for this is to “show the world that the football community is wholly united against racism and help spread the unequivocal message that there is no place for it in football”.
A joint message between Brazil, the United Nations and FIFA is communicated in the stadiums prior to the start of each match that says: “Today we come together to strive not only for victory of the game but victory of peace. Brazil, the United Nations and FIFA wish to share a message of peace, tolerance and respect for human rights. United in spirit with all players, officials and fans around the world, we join our voices to fight all forms of discrimination and in favour of mutual respect, regardless of gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, religion or class. These are the universal values and aspirations that we pledge to continue to promote in this World Cup and beyond.”
FIFA in conjunction with the Nobel Peace Center have been promoting a new way for players to shake hands with their opponents before and after every match. According to the official FIFA website, football grounds are important venues for “promoting respect, equality and friendship”. The Handshake of Peace staged at global football events will “create an important symbol and set a great example to help build solidarity between nations”.
So, perhaps the reason why we jump for joy or cry for our sporting teams is not for the game itself but rather the moments of genuine human connection we experience. The coming together in solidarity with one another is the take home message from events such as the World Cup. Whether the team loses or wins is not what is important. What is important is how the game is played. Perhaps we can take this lesson to heart and apply it to the game of life.