More than a billion people all over the world are believed to have watched the final of the World Cup in Brazil last Sunday. That’s one out of every seven person on the planet. Football fans followed the action on the pitch from TV sets, smartphones, laptops, tablets.
This staggering global audience cements the reputation of football as the world’s most popular sport. No other athletic spectacle—not the Olympics, not the NBA championships—comes close.
The Brazil World Cup left us with memorable moments to savor. There were spectacular upsets, controversial calls, national angst over bitter defeats. And yes, let’s not forget the bite that left an international imprint. But in the end, it was Germany that made the Cup a most unforgettable event.
Installed as one of the early contenders, Germany showed its promise with convincing victories in the early stages. It loomed even bigger after decimating host Brazil, a 7-1 slaughter that drove a knife deep into that country’s psyche. The defeat plunged the Brazil into an episode of breast-beating and blame-hunting. “A humiliation for all eternity,” bannered one Brazilian newspaper. Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, adored before the tournament, suddenly became the Devil personified. “Go to hell, Felipe,” snarled one daily.
The loss put into serious doubt the political fortunes of the Brazilian president, who is running for reelection later this year.
The lopsidedness of the score drew little emotion from the Germans. To them, it was just another step on the road to the bigger prize.
Argentina earned the right to play in the final after packing off Netherlands in a somnambulistic semifinal match. Earlier, Germany romped over Portugal, 4-0, to establish itself as the clear favorite.
The final game went scoreless in regulation play, a blur of tactical maneuvers and failed offensive forays. It was the extra time that gave the match its magical aura.
Twenty-three minutes into the bonus period, substitute Mario Goetze executed a classic chest-and-volley move to rip the ball into the Argentine net.
With that single goal, Germany became World Cup champion for the fourth time.
The heady feeling of victory will linger for days to come, and Goetze’s feat is headed for immortality. Football’s reputation as “the beautiful game” is preserved and enhanced.
It is a wonder how a game involving mainly the feet achieved such a universal appeal. The fact that several ancient peoples are claiming to have invented it could be a factor. The Greeks and Romans are said to have played a variation of football. The Chinese had their own version they called cuju. The Japanese kicked around a ball in a game of kemari.
An early version of modern football, popular in 12th century England, was aptly described as “mob football” because of the unlimited number of players involved.
England introduced football as we know it today to Europe, where it quickly took root. Spain and Portugal brought the game to its colonies in the Americas.
Today, 256 million people play football, according to FIFA, the sport’s governing body. Even basketball-crazy Philippines has taken a fancy to it, and the national team Azkals has acquired a large following.
In many countries, football stokes a passion that borders on fanaticism. Fan fights often erupt when rival teams face off, and deaths during stadium riots are not uncommon.
Football feuds between countries can also turn deadly. In 1969, Honduras and neighboring El Salvador waged the Football War, hostilities that lasted just 100 days. Tensions had long been brewing between the two nations over immigration issues, but it boiled over after their teams clashed in the qualifying round for the 1970 World Cup.
Football could trigger a war, but the Catholic Church sees in the sport an instrument of peace. Just before the Brazil World Cup final, the Vatican called for a moment of silence “to remember those stricken by wars and unrest worldwide.”
“Sports were born around religious festivities,” a Vatican official said. “Sporting events were moments of peace, when wars ceased, as for the Olympic truce.”
“Why not for the World Cup, why not a pause, a moment of silence, a truce for peace?” the official suggested.
Why not, indeed.