Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Greatest Game on Earth and What It Represents: World Cup 2010

It is very easy these days to read the news and feel pretty glum about the state of the world. There are growing tensions on the Korean peninsula with no clearly favorable solution and the diplomatic stalemate that is the Israeli blockade on Gaza has created rifts between traditional allies. Ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan has erupted after long simmering tensions and the Taliban continue to strike violent and painful blows throughout non-tribal areas of Pakistan. Not to mention anything of the numerous episodes of civil discord in places like Thailand, the ongoing war in Iraq, the insecurity and human suffering caused by failed or failing states, and the more familiar turmoil caused by natural and manmade disasters in almost every corner of the planet. Couple all of this with the ongoing sluggish “recovery” of the global economy and the fear of a potential “double dip” recession, the increasing debt crises across Europe and the rich world, discouraging employment numbers across the world, and toxic partisan political rhetoric in the United States and it would be justifiable for someone to question where we all are headed.

Several weeks ago I got into a discussion with some friends about whether or not the world, society in particular, becomes more or less progressive as time goes on. I took the position that, despite frequent periods where humanity has regressed, and in spite of contemporary places, people, and situations that hark back to more primitive and prosaic eras in history, that yes, indeed society is moving forward for the better. Obviously a debatable topic, one of my friends took the opposing viewpoint, and with only the short list of the aforementioned problems of the world listed above, who could blame someone for making the argument?

We have always battled threats and challenges that sound very similar, if not entirely worse, to the contemporary ones above. It was only a couple of generations ago that the there was a horrific global war being fought in every corner of the world, a colossal battle to defeat one of the most dangerous political ideologies to threaten the modern world, and I am confident that this is a prime example of when humanity took a massive backwards step away from progress. At this war’s close it was only to be followed by a half century of ideological and militaristic bipolarism which created strife or conflict zones of varying scales on every inhabited continent. Again, as the world was tearing itself apart, not an example of human progressivism.

However, it was during these same periods that European imperial powers cast away their colonial possessions and independent nations were born, civil rights were fought for and won by minorities and women all over the developed world, and innovation in information technology brought the world closer together through improved speed and ease of communication. Right now across Europe equal rights continue to be secured for couples regardless of sexual orientation with Portugal the most recent country to recognize same-sex marriage, a country that just over thirty years ago was still ruled by the fascist Estado Novo (“New State”), a regime in which civil liberties of any kind were repressed.

We are now one week into the biggest sporting event in the world. The World Cup, hosted for the first time on African soil in a country that was ravaged by the worst form of institutionalized racism only less than two decades ago, is bigger than the Olympics and is a time for people to come together to enjoy the only truly global sport. It is a time when nationalism is not anything to be ashamed of and people have an opportunity to cheer for their home country as they take on a country they may have known very little about.

Yes, we have our struggles ahead of us and no one should be as na├»ve as to believe that a game will solve the woes of the world. However, who could be a cynic when you find yourself cheering for an underdog team in which you have no affiliation simply because of the contagious energy of the fans and the inspiring fortitude of the players? Who isn’t encouraged by watching the proud and emotional faces of the teams as their national anthem is played prior to the game? The sport itself is one of focus, endurance, and cooperation, even when your back is against the wall. The ideals of playing by the rules of engagement with the opposition, teamwork and collaboration, healthy competition, and balanced patriotism that embody the World Cup are principles that we should all reflect on in the coming weeks as we watch the games unfold and continue to read about the ongoing troubles that we collectively face.

In 1939 when Winston Churchill realized that the “world had truly gone mad” and “Britain seemed truly alone”, an unknown British civil servant coined a phrase that helped to get the British through the ugliest days of the war and to this day still symbolizes and embodies the spirit of determinism and optimism in the face of terrifying threat, disaster and failure; “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Appropriately enough, this phrase is making a resurgence as the unofficial slogan for Team England this year. As we gather around the pubs and the televisions over the next few weeks to cheer our nations on in the spirit of global sportsmanship and to watch the best football played in the world to the backdrop of the drowning sound of the vuvuzelas, let’s remember that no matter what challenges we face, if we maintain composure and carry on against all odds, anything, especially progress, is possible.

Enjoy the spirit of the games of 2010 South Africa!


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