Why the World Cup Is About More Than Soccer

In 1986, I watched my first soccer match on my parents’ big box television, our family’s first color TV that my father had purchased just for the event. I was six, and it was the final World Cup game between Germany and Argentina.

Bullets vs. Soccer Balls

Ever since then, I have dreamed of attending the World Cup, and soccer has been my favorite sport. This was partly because it was the only sport I could play, since there was no infrastructure for other games. All we needed for soccer was a ball and a street with limited traffic.

Even when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at its height during the first uprising in 1987 and my town was under curfew, we would sneak out from home to play. We first had to escape our parents, and then look out for the military patrol so we could hide when they appeared. Every so often the army would shoot at us for breaking the curfew. However, it was not the military that terrified us, but the threat of being caught by our parents, who would really punish us if they caught us breaking curfew!

Friends and Strangers

This year, I traveled to Brazil to make my dream of attending this international sporting event a reality. I was excited not only because I was at the World Cup, but also because I was in Brazil, the country that has won the cup more than any other.

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The first match I attended was between Australia and Spain. Within minutes of walking into the stadium I found myself surrounded by the excited buzz of other fans, talking and cheering together. Every now and then we hear about violence due to a soccer game, but this match was mainly peaceful, except for one fight that broke out between a few people in my section of the stadium. Unlike what one normally sees on the news, which tends to broadcast images of vandalism and fighting, most of the fans in the stadium tried to break up the fight.

When the fight started, the whole section—thousands of people—began chanting with one voice, asking those fighting to stop. When they didn’t, those same thousands of people—supporters of both teams—told the rabblerousers to leave! Minutes later, they were escorted out of the stadium. Australian and Spanish fans refused to join a fight based on “nationalism” in sport. This is what sports should be about!

What struck me about the games I attended was the sense of camaraderie and sportsmanship, an atmosphere that is usually ignored on television in favor of stories about isolated outbreaks of violence. I met English, Australian, Algerian, Spanish, American, Russian, Lebanese, Argentine, and many Brazilian soccer fans, among others. Sometimes we were cheering for the same team and sometimes for opposite teams, but that didn’t stop us from becoming friends. The stands were not divided between teams, and the interaction was often spirit-lifting.

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Brazilian Perspectives

But of course, the World Cup is not happening without controversy. Many Brazilians took to the streets in the past few months to protest the World Cup, with politics at the core of these protests. I had the chance to speak with some of the protesters, who told me that they were not protesting soccer, they were protesting FIFA and the Brazilian government. They were protesting what they believed was the use of soccer for political means, the brutality of the police, and what they perceived as money spent on organizing the tournament at a time when other pressing issues like healthcare and education are much more in need of funding.

At the same time, I met many Brazilians who were filled with joy that the World Cup is happening in Brazil. One was Edna, a volunteer at one of the matches. She was in tears when the match began! She told me that she was emotional and overjoyed that her city, Curitiba, was hosting a World Cup match.

I also watched the game that ousted Brazil from the World Cup in São Paulo. I was with friends at a large bar in the area, which hosted a mix of Brazilian and German supporters. As Germany scored one goal after another, the sadness and even tears were visible on the faces of Brazilians. But German fans came to the Brazilians to comfort them! Other Brazilian fans were receiving text messages from German friends, apologizing that the game was ending with such a big gap. Everyone was hoping for the teams to play their best and for a good match.

Bringing Worlds Together

What I love about the World Cup is it provides a chance for millions of people to learn about other countries and cultures. People learn about the countries of the teams they support and about their opponents’ history, culture, and even some new phrases in a foreign language. This year’s World Cup coincides with Ramadan, which is the month when Muslims abstain from food, drinks, and sex from sunrise to sunset. Some players from Algeria, Nigeria, Germany, Belgium, and France were fasting during their matches. Millions of people learned about the diversity of these countries and about the religious tenet of fasting thanks to these Muslim players.

Soccer is a game that not only gives people the chance to learn about each other but also has the potential to unite people. Many organizations around the world today are using sports to bridge the gap between enemy groups. In my National Geographic Conflict Zone series, I organized one such match for Palestinian and Israeli kids. The World Cup Project has documented soccer’s use in many cities around the world as a tool for education and peace.

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Sports and Social Change

When I brought Israeli and Palestinian kids together to play soccer, none of them had ever met someone from the other side before. They knew each other as enemies. Yet when they found themselves teammates, their perceptions changed. They were mainly interested in game strategy and in working together to win the match. This is how sport can be an instrument of social change.

Sports can be a dividing force, but the true spirit of sports is about unity, fun, and innovation. The matches at this World Cup have been exactly that so far, and I hope it remains so, because millions of children all over the world are watching these games and being inspired by what happens here in Brazil. It is amazing to me that the final game of this year’s World Cup is between Argentina and Germany, a repeat of the first two World Cups I watched as a child!

Watch Aziz’s Conflict Zone Series

Human Journey

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A walking embodiment of the reconciliation he strives to achieve, Abu Sarah is a Muslim who works closely with rabbis and Christian groups and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, and English. “My goal isn’t to come in to a group of students or soldiers and say here’s my political view, you should think like me. I simply expose them to thoughts they’ve never heard before. Pain is very powerful, very destructive. But it can also be constructive. If you open up and listen to the other side’s suffering you don’t have to agree with their actions, but you can understand where they’re coming from.” In the U.S. he is co-executive director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (the oldest conflict resolution school in the world). There he builds alliances between Jewish and Arab Americans and has launched a unique study-abroad program bringing students to the Middle East and beyond. “Speakers and excursions delve into the true complexity of the situation here. We include every point of view—Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, secular, left-wing, right-wing, historical, cultural, environmental. This multi-narrative presentation of ideas is essential to seeing how you can work with very different mindsets toward conflict resolution.” Abu Sarah uses the same concept to create a new model of tourism. His rapidly growing Mejdi tour company has brought thousands of people to the region on trips that highlight diversity. “If you travel here with only one guide,” Abu Sarah notes, “you are limited to one point of view. That’s why we always try to have at least two guides, one Israeli and one Palestinian, plus many local guides all along the way. Whether you explore history, archaeology, or the environment you need all points of view or you’ll go home with a distorted, one-dimensional picture.” The multicultural spirit of the tours is reflected in the people who participate—Jewish congregations, seminary groups, Imams, rabbis, ministers, and students from around the world. Abu Sarah’s passion for peace bears practical fruit: students inspired to cancel tickets home to stay and intern with peace organizations, synagogue groups compelled to share their experiences with churches and mosques, travelers motivated to help build the struggling economy by connecting with local Israeli-Palestinian businesses, the brother of a suicide bomber reaching out to the father of a victim to apologize and say he didn’t find the act heroic, an Israeli teenager determined to join the army and kill Palestinians and now rethinking his decision. “When I see lives like this being saved from the cycle of violence and revenge it makes it all worth it. Maybe I can’t change things politically, but I can change people. And my small changes can make a difference in when this conflict will end. The more I do today, the faster peace will come.”