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“Si, Senor, It’s War” read the headline in an English newspaper a few days before the national team of England and Argentina met in their semifinal soccer game during the World Cup in Mexico in 1986. The headline was an exaggeration, of course. It was just a game. Yet, the Falklands War was fresh in everybody’s mind and for the Argentine players a soccer victory would help make up for their loss of the war. Argentina won that game, yet the English will get another chance for revenge when the two national teams meet again in the 2002 World Cup.

This year’s World Cup, which will be held in South Korea and Japan in June, is not a war, but there is plenty of nationalism at stake. The popularity of the game throughout the world is due in part to its simplicity, but also to the national fervor that a winning team creates. When France plays Germany or Italy plays England, sports may create a little competition, but history and ancient rivalries make that competition important.

Ten years ago, when Holland defeated Germany in the European championship, delirious Dutch fans threw their bicycles in the air and shouted that they had got their “bikes back,” a reference to World War II, when the Nazis confiscated all the bikes in Holland.

And when England beat Germany in 1966 to win the cup, many English fans saw a repeat of World War II. The fans’ celebrations suggested that much.

In the 1998 cup, more than just sportsmanship was at stake when the American players faced the national team of Iran. As soon as the whistle ended the game, thousands of Iranians poured into the streets to celebrate their team’s victory. It was not just a game won by the players. It was also a victory for the 45 million of Iranians. As Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the hardline spiritual leader of the country stated, the players had made the nation happy.

For the Iranians the game symbolized a victory in the political rivalry with the United States. It was a way of paying back the “Great Satan” for the American support of the shah and their perceived support of Iraq during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

Yet, the game was also a spur for the Clinton administration and the Iranian government to resume diplomatic relations.

The game between Iran and the U.S. was insignificant in determining who would eventually win the World Cup. Neither team had a chance. The usual contenders were and are Germany, Italy, England, France, Argentina and Brazil. However, small countries feel that they have won the Cup if they manage to win a single game against one of these major teams. Thus, when North Korean players defeated Italy in 1966, they went home heroes while the Italian players were welcomed by irate fans throwing lemons at them. North Korea had won “their” world cup by defeating a soccer giant.

Just winning a game against one of these rich countries suggests to a poor or small country, lacking a winning tradition in soccer, that although they may not equal the major soccer power-economically, politically, or in other ways-they can compete in one area. And for a moment they feel that they are better than the defeated country, not just in soccer, but in every other aspect of life. It’s not true, of course, but soccer fever is very strong because it is the world sport, something Americans can only understand if they put the popularity of American football, baseball, baseball, and hockey together. And the victory on the soccer field boosts the national ego. It’s a beginning for positive change in their lives.

It’s unfortunate that the national teams of Pakistan and India did not make the final 32 finalist teams meeting in South Korea and Japan. If they had, they might create a race on the soccer field, rather than in nuclear weapons, and they’d be a lot better off. So would the rest of the world.

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