An estimated five billion people will watch the World Cup soccer matches, according to FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football. That’s more than half the world’s population.
And despite a slew of political scandals that have overshadowed this year’s games, they remain unique among global venues when it comes to leveling the playing field between nations.
“To me, it’s the best time in life that I could sit and watch soccer from all over the world,” says Charles Anchang, co-publisher of Immigrant Magazine, which focuses on the U.S. immigrant experience. “It was the only sport we could participate in as young kids. We used to make footballs out of rubber from tires so we could play.”
Anchang, a native of Cameroon, first came to the U.S. for the World Cup to watch the Cameroon national team in 1994. The tiny African nation has qualified for the FIFA World Cup eight times, more than any other African team.
“It put Cameroon on the map more than anything else has done,” Anchang said.
He was among a diverse panel of speakers during an EMS media briefing on the enduring appeal of “the beautiful game” and what it is about soccer — or football as it’s known worldwide — that makes it “the people’s sport.”
The people’s sport
“I grew up playing with the youth programs, then I played with the national team of Egypt and went to the Africa championship,” said Ehab Zenga, who now runs a soccer academy for youth and trains players for the semi-pro Anaheim Bolts in Los Angeles.
Zenga, who started playing at age nine, says he played barefoot as a child, noting this is how children in poorer nations often play the game and — because so little equipment is needed — is part of soccer’s global popularity. “It’s a sport for everybody,” he says.
Andrew Howonn Jo started playing in South Korea when he was ten. He was an active player for 12 years. A trained chemist, Jo returned to soccer and has been coaching kids in Alabama and Georgia for a decade.
Jo echoes Zenga, saying part of soccer’s appeal is the fact that it requires so little to play. “With baseball, you need a bat and glove… soccer can be played anywhere,” he says, noting goals can be constructed from just about anything, including trash cans or a pair of stones.
Henrik Rehbinder, a former editor with the Spanish-language daily La Opiníon, grew up in soccer-crazed Argentina, home to one of the game’s most famous players, Diego Maradona, whose ascent from working-class roots to global stardom personifies soccer’s mythos as a great leveler.
“You have this addiction of playing, and you don’t require anything except a couple of people who have the same addiction,” says Rehbinder, 66, who now plays in an over-60 league.
“I thought that I was going to be one of the old ones… and I find myself with a goalie who’s 90 years old, and another one is 85. I feel like I’m a kid,” Rehbinder said.
Scandals amid the celebrations
Thirty-two teams qualified to play in the 2022 World Cup, winnowed down in qualifying rounds of FIFA’s six regional confederations that began in 2019. For every team that qualified there were three that didn’t make it. So just getting to play in the World Cup is a victory.
But FIFA has been rocked by several scandals involving graft and payoffs that won Qatar, not a big soccer power, the 2022 World Cup. In 2015, when FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter won re-election easily, Chris Dagonas reported that a mysterious Middle Eastern broker bribed FIFA executives $50,000 each to vote for him.
“Among other accusations, the American and British investigation team concluded that FIFA executives had accepted bribes from governments and corporations, did little to end racism in the sport, forced alcohol back into Brazilian stadiums, and passively accepted the deaths of over a thousand migrant workers in Qatar,” Dagonas wrote.
So, while the players are heroes to millions of fans with their talent and devotion to the game, reporting shows that FIFA executives have been gaming the system for their own benefit for years.
Still the game inspires new players all the time.
World Cup a window to the world
Take Tim Weah, for instance. His father, George, was a famous footballer from Liberia and later played for Cameroon and, as a pro, played for Chelsea FC, one of England’s top soccer teams. In 1995, he won the prestigious Ballon d’Or, the trophy given every year to the world’s best player. But Weah senior never played in the World Cup.
In 2019, Weah senior was elected president of Liberia, a nation founded by former African American slaves. His son, Tim, is a forward on the U.S. squad in the 2022 World Cup. Young Weah scored the only goal in the U.S. win over Wales.
The World Cup brings out old rivalries, revenge matches, and with so many good players, it has become easier for small teams to beat big teams like Japan’s win over Spain last week. That upset knocked Germany, with four World Cup trophies, out of the tournament.
But Anchang says the game also offers an important window onto global migration patterns and a platform for international diplomacy.
Players like Weah or U.S. midfielder Yunus Musah — born in the U.S. to Ghanaian parents — reflect growing diaspora communities in the U.S., notes Anchang.
“There is always going to be tension. I’m going to beat you, or you will beat me,” he adds. “But say, for instance, if the USA were to do a friendly match with Iran, it will bring those people together… and that exchange is always good in terms of encouraging tolerance.”
Indeed, following the U.S. team’s defeat of Iran — whose players drew attention during an earlier match for refusing to sing the Iranian national anthem in solidarity with protestors demanding greater freedom and gender equality — American defensive player Antonee Robinson was lauded for embracing a teary-eyed Ramin Rezaeian.
The American team lost to the Netherlands on Saturday and is out of the competition. The panel predicted powerhouses Brazil, Argentina, or France would become the 2022 World Cup champion.