It could not have happened at a better time. As civil war in Syria flows into yet another round of fighting in Iraq and terrorism runs with impunity through that land, the Ukrainian-Russian conflict descends into childish name calling, and a growing polarity in the US threatens the spirit of compromise so essential to democracy, there seems to be few happy places left in the world. Yet there something in the world that has literally billions of people seeing humanity as it could be. I refer, of course to the World Cup.
I am not necessarily a fan of soccer, but I have many friends who are. When I worked in Afghanistan it was one of those “aha” moments when I first saw my Afghan friends lose themselves in the excitement of the games. Soccer seemed to be capable of bringing out the best in all people, transporting them to a gentler place as few things can do. There is struggle, of course, and competition, and every once in a while, confrontation, but there is also an overriding spirit of emotions held in check by the rules of the game and common decency. In the world of soccer, the World Cup is the ultimate example of that overriding spirit, and this World Cup is no different.
First came the sight of players walking hand in hand with children as they entered the stadium. Probably no big deal to the many fans who are used to seeing such things, but I could not help but think of all the children in the world right now who are terrified witnesses to war and poverty, with no hand to hold and no games to play. Then there was the sight of players from all over the world, looking different, having different experiences and cultures, smiling together, united in something that was bigger than all their diversity.
In the Iran-Nigeria game an Iranian player stooped to inquire after his Nigerian opponent and then actually helped him up. In the US-Ghana game, I saw an American player gently and, it seemed, sincerely, apologize to an upset Ghanaian player whom he had inadvertently kicked in the head as the two fell chasing the ball. The referee stood with both of them until the moment of anger had passed and they could get on with the game. I saw players line up to shake hands with the opposing team after their matches. I even saw some of them go up to the referees to shake their hands, a thing almost unbelievable to a watcher of most American sports. There was determination to win, and integrity, and more than that, there was a rare humanity that controlled everything. It was absolutely uplifting to see.
Now, soccer, or football, as most of the world calls this game of intensity and nerves, is not a panacea for the ills of the world, but it is a shining example of what we can be if we want to be. The question is, do we want to be badly enough? It seems not.