The religious undercurrent in soccer runs especially deep in World Cup years. Teams from across the globe converge on the host nation in something of an unarmed, athletic crusade. As in the Crusades, the host nation tends to repel them. There's a weird power in home-team advantage. Hosts find a level of success disproportionate to their talents on paper, triumphing over stronger teams, as if exerting a gravitational pull on the game, causing it to be played the way they want to play it, as if, to carry this metaphor to its inevitable conclusion, God were on their side.
It's well-known that soccer, like religion, can provoke violence—hooliganism and tramplings at overcrowded, Mecca-mid-hajj-like stadiums are what many Americans assume about the game. But soccer has also proved unique in its ability to bridge differences and overturn national prejudices. The fact that the World Cup could even take place in South Korea and in Japan, as it did in 2002, was a victory for tolerance and understanding. In less than half a century South Korea had gone from not allowing the Japanese national team to cross its borders for a World Cup qualifier, to co-hosting the tournament with the former occupier. Give the world another 50 years and we might see the Cup co-hosted by Israel and Palestine.
And why not? Soccer's universality is its simplicity—the fact that the game can be played anywhere with anything. Urban children kick the can on concrete and rural kids kick a rag wrapped around a rag wrapped around a rag, barefoot, on dirt. Soccer is something to believe in now, perhaps empty at its core, but not a stand-in for anything else.
The beautiful game—let's call it business and religion combined—will be at its most unfair, frustrating, and magnificent this month in unified Germany's first World Cup. And what makes the World Cup most beautiful is the world, all of us together. The joy of being one of the billion or more people watching 32 countries abide by 17 rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite us all.
Read Sean Wilsey's entire essay "World Cup 2002: Recap, Results and Statistics." He is the author of the memoir Oh the Glory of It All and the editor-at-large at McSweeney's Quarterly, a literary journal.