Soccer field

The World Cup reminds us that everyone is a football field: NPR

The global reach of football never ceases to amaze me. I travel all over the world, sometimes to incredibly remote areas. More often than not, when I arrive, someone kicks a soccer ball.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Asia, Africa or Central America. The kids score a goal with a few backpacks, throw a ball and the game begins. The “ball” can be a knotted towel, tennis ball, or ragged leather shell that barely holds air.

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

For me, football serves as a barometer. In places where things are really terrible, where children are starving, where a hurricane has just hit, where riots break out, no one is playing.

But I noticed what I call the “stadium football” of the recovery.

After any natural disaster, there comes a time when people start playing football again. In Haiti, they are kicking balloons in the middle of post-earthquake shacks. In Sri Lanka, they set makeshift goals in a landscape devastated by the tsunami.

In the Philippines, they play in the streets even as typhoon debris looms behind them.

In almost every peacekeeping mission involving France, there comes a point where French soldiers swap their bulletproof vests for bare-thigh camouflage shorts and head out onto the football field. It is a moment of progress, a sign of hope. A frivolous diversion signaling that the conflict has at least slowed down.

With the kick off of the World Cup in Brazil, I am 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 which matches they would show and when. My children’s school almost closed for much of the competition that lasted for weeks. The teachers gathered the children in the gymnasium to watch the games on a giant television. The children were frantically exchanging playing cards trying to collect all the stars from all the national teams.

A football-like fever gripped most of the other Central American countries I traveled to during the competition.

But this global football obsession doesn’t just happen during the World Cup. Whenever Spanish rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona go head-to-head, the anxious fan’s oh, ah and screams reverberate throughout Latin America.

Children all over the world wear the jerseys of their idols: Messi, Ronaldo, Alves and Casillas. Mini-stars tell the drama of a foul or flop or a failed flexing free kick – oh! – just by inches!

Football touches a universal agreement.

It’s a simple sport that transcends language, that crosses the world in a way that very few other human activities have. FIFA, the world’s soccer governing body, estimates that 3.2 billion people – roughly half of the world’s population – have logged in at some point to watch the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. This year, the audience should be even larger.

And even if my job takes me to the Central African Republic or some other far away country during this month’s soccer tournament, I won’t miss the action. I’m sure there will be TVs set up in front of people’s homes, perched in storefronts and screaming in restaurants, all tuned to the World Cup.