LONDON — Now for the really big story — and Japan is at the center of it. But the focus this time is not on dreary economics but on soccer. With the curtain rising on the great drama of the Japan/South Korea-hosted World Cup, all eyes and world media attention are beamed on the teams, the players, the coaches, the fans, the matches, the pitches, the logos and all the rest.
The past 10 years have seen a geometrical expansion of media and public interest in the soccer world — at least in Europe. America, of course, has its own brand of soccer and is widely regarded as a baseball nation — as was Japan until recently. But the rest of the planet has been more or less conquered by soccer, and with the massive public support has come equally massive flows of cash and investment.
Soccer, with all sports-related industries spun off it, is now a multibillion-dollar world. Its personalities are global celebrities. In the old days, attention used to be focused on the actual teams and the star players on them. Now the spotlight turns not just on teams and who is picked for them, but also on the squads from which the teams are picked, how they come to be chosen and, above all, the team coaches and managers, formerly near-anonymous figures who have become headline material.
Thus England’s Swedish coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, is now a household name. His private life — quite an exotic one, it seems — is just as exposed to the public glare as his coaching skills. Actual players are bought and sold between clubs for astronomical sums. Top players, in contrast to their relatively small-earning predecessors 40 years ago, are now paid fees that put them in the same class as investment bankers, or above.
The health of these star players, and the injuries they all regularly incur, receive the sort of attention once reserved for the health of monarchs. Their life-style, avidly reported in detail, matches that of the richest dukes and merchant princes.
For example, David Beckham, England’s temporarily injured captain, is probably the best known face in Britain. With his wife Victoria — the former Spice Girl popstar known as “Posh,” the most elegant of the remarkable four-girl band — he leads a life that eclipses that of the highest-living Hollywood stars of the past. Palatial residences and vast parties receive pages of newspaper coverage, most of it favorable and completely free of the envy that usually accompanies accounts of the activities of the super-rich.
While all this elevation of soccer to the status of religion is harmless, and certainly preferable to other outlets for national energies in past history, such as wars, there are inevitably one or two darker spots in the soccer universe.
The globalization of the sport — for that, in effect, is what is occurring — is having the same results on soccer as on other walks of life — namely, that the rich are getting much richer and more celebrated, and the big clubs are getting bigger, but those not falling within the spotlight tend to be forgotten or squeezed out.
Thus, many smaller British soccer clubs are in seriously financial straights, with attendance falling. Similar problems — falling attendance — seem to have afflicted the Japan Soccer Association and the J. League.
Meanwhile, the international bodies governing soccer worldwide have been touched by scandal and political infighting, with FIFA in particular said to be in a very bad way.
And finally there are the fans and the soccer crowds who also bring their problems. Britain has been both plagued and shamed by the behavior of soccer hooligans — mostly decent-enough lads who seem to lose all self-control after a few pints of beer — who bring terror to the grounds and the towns, both at home and overseas, they happen to be visiting.
Intimate international police cooperation has helped obstruct the travels of some of the worst offenders and it is to be devoutly hoped that this has worked for the World Cup events now beginning. The British are also placing much faith in the proverbial efficiency of the Japanese police and in the belief that those potential hooligans who have escaped the British net will be caught in the Japanese net — literally, it seems, since devices that throw nets over unruly troublemakers are to be used to curb any crowd violence at World Cup events.
But the downside should not be allowed to cloud the upside of the world soccer mania, which is that sports, and this sport in particular, unites a troubled world, it diverts enthusiasms and energies from more dangerous channels, it creates wealth without envy and it brings much joy and excitement to life the world over.
It does not, of course, solve world problems — it is after all, only a game and not a matter of life and death, as some of its more obsessed followers sometimes think. It cannot solve the terrifying tensions and slaughter of the Middle East or Kashmir or Chechnya. It cannot halt the growing starvation and misery across Central Africa, or release people from the oppression of tyrants such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. It cannot penetrate the twisted minds of terrorist fanatics.
But it can provide a respite from these gloomy facets of a dangerous world, and it can provide a little of the cement that keeps the globe together rather than tearing it apart.
So good luck to the players, referees, coaches, managers, supporters and commentators who make it all happen, and good luck to Japan, which has to put up with the whole crowd of them for the next few weeks.
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