Maybe it is because it rolls around just once every four years. Maybe it is because it is played by more people, in more countries, than any other sport. Maybe it is because it promises, and usually delivers, moments of magnificent drama –all the more stirring for the long stretches of tedium before and after. But whatever the reason, the World Cup final, the culmination of the quadrennial soccer championship that kicks off for the 17th time today in Seoul, is the planet’s most-watched sporting event by far. An astounding 2 billion people, it is reported, saw Mr. Zinedine Zidane dash the hopes of 170 million Brazilians in the last one, in France, in 1998.
The World Cup is so popular that it constitutes a kind of parallel mental universe, where the everyday rules of rational behavior do not apply. In Ireland, fans actually petitioned the government to switch the country to Japanese time for the duration of this year’s championship. In Senegal, schools will close on May 31, June 6 and June 11, when the 42nd-ranked Lions of Teranga play France, Denmark and Uruguay. Even soccer-resistant America has fans, albeit mostly immigrants: An Italian resident of Washington says that during the last World Cup his boss thought he was seeing a psychiatrist because he scheduled his summer vacation in three-hour blocks.
The World Cup bends the realities of politics, too. On one level, it is true, football mania begins and ends in rabid nationalism. That’s half the fun of it. But on another level, it breeds a striking sense of commonality, the prerequisite of detente. After all, it is hard to feel completely estranged from anyone who shares one’s passion for watching a bunch of grown men chase, kick and head-butt a big ball into a net. For one month, as the 64 World Cup matches dwindle toward the last faceoff in Yokohama at the end of June, it will be a bit like Christmas Day in the trenches of World War I: hostilities temporarily suspended, guns laid down. For a brief moment, the so-called World Cup community supersedes even local loyalties. And that, of course, is the other half of the fun.
The thawing effect is particularly evident this year in Asia, where Japan and South Korea find ourselves in the delicate situation of cohosting the show. Certainly, there have been bumps along the road thus far, and rivalry is intense. The two countries will not play each other, but neither team pretends it doesn’t care about advancing further in the competition than the other. At the same time, though, the enforced cooperation has generated what looks like genuine warmth. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has exchanged football shirts and good wishes with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, an unpopular figure in Mr. Kim’s country last year. And the prime minister will be joined at today’s opening ceremony in Seoul by Prince Takamado and Princess Hisako, the first members of the Imperial family to visit South Korea since World War II.
Similarly, the shadow that had fallen over relations between North and South Korea has lifted somewhat ahead of today’s kickoff. As South Korean presidential adviser Mr. Lim Dong Won said bluntly a few weeks ago, “We can’t host the World Cup without peace on the Korean Peninsula.” There are naturally no guarantees that the fragile “football truce” between Tokyo, Seoul and Pyongyang will last beyond June 30, but it surely augurs well that it has occurred at all. It is in everyone’s interests that the momentum of cooperation, however reluctantly achieved, be sustained and extended.
In the meantime, it is obviously of the greatest importance that this jointly hosted World Cup be perceived as a success. Everything from traffic to the weather is a factor in that, and not all of them are controllable. But easily the two biggest issues are hospitality and security. It is unfortunate that some people in this country — perhaps influenced by media stories about hooliganism — seem to think that hospitality and security are incompatible ideals, that the fear of misbehavior by foreign fans is somehow making foreigners in general, both residents and visitors, feel unwelcome. The Japanese police, for instance, have been criticized as inhospitable, even xenophobic, for “watching videos of the Hillsborough disaster” in which 95 British football fans were crushed to death at a game in 1989.
This is nonsense. The police should be watching videos of Hillsborough — as well as of incidents of fan violence in Europe, Africa, South America and elsewhere. Hooliganism is a real issue, and hospitality is not undercut by security designed to prevent it: It depends on it.
On that note, therefore, let us hope that at the 2002 World Cup everyone will feel both safe and welcome, that the sun will shine, the traffic will flow . . . and even, since we are talking about miracles, that Japan will win.
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