LONDON — Question: what quadrennial sporting extravaganza brings the world together for weeks on end, transcending war, poverty, class, and culture, and culminating in the most watched television event ever?
If you guessed the Olympics, odds are you're an American. The rest of the world knows better. Soccer's World Cup kicks off Friday in Germany. And while the month-long spectacle may not leave much of an impression on Americans, for most other nations it is an incomparable event.
Brazilian banks will close early, British productivity will nosedive, elections in Mexico could be affected, the fate of the French prime minister may hang on results. The event will touch even the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, where scientists have set up a live Internet feed so as not to miss the action.
And at the grand finale on July 9, as many as a billion people - one-sixth of humanity - are expected to watch 22 men, adept at propelling a piece of leather around, compete for the ultimate victory in team sports.
"Every four years, it seems to get more and more crazy," says Johnny Rep, a legend of Dutch football - as the sport is known internationally - who played in two World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978. "In 1974 things were really only beginning to take off, but now it's crazy," he says by phone from the Netherlands where the national team's orange color is in "every bar, every cafe - everywhere is orange."
Germany is bracing for 4.5 million fans to arrive for the matches. The rest of the world is working to accommodate broadcasts. World Trade Organization negotiators have agreed to end meetings at 4 p.m. in time for kick-off. In China, 70 percent of football fans said they planned to watch all 63 matches, even though most will take place in the middle of the Chinese night. In the Koreas, North has turned to South for help with rebroadcasting, so its people can see some of the action. And Arab leaders are scrambling to help poor citizens see the games after a regional pay-TV network bought exclusive broadcasting rights.
Why is the event - which has spawned more than 30 pop songs in England alone - so popular?
After all, there are only 32 nations and 730 footballers at the finals, compared with 11,000 athletes from 200 Olympic nations. And yet from Azerbaijan to Zambia, they'll be watching.
One reason, says soccer writer Simon Kuper, is that the World Cup provides a stage for old rivalries to be played out. It enables small nations of the world who ordinarily have little say in that other great international sport - diplomacy - to settle scores and resolve questions of status and national identity with a few cathartic kicks.
He adds that the tournament gives nations a chance to debate what kind of people they are. "The team is a nation made flesh, with all the virtues and deficits of the people that associate with the country," says Mr. Kuper, who writes about the overlap between soccer and politics in his book "Soccer Against the Enemy."
Another reason for the overwhelming popularity is that soccer is so pervasive. The international soccer federation FIFA has more members than the United Nations (207 vs. 191). Two years ago, 198 countries started out trying to qualify for this summer's finals. The game has taken root in so many places because it's so easy to prepare and play, according to Fernando Soares Schlindwein, an academic from Brazil.
"The nice thing about football is that you can play it with anyone with almost anything," he says. "People play with fizzy drink cans, or oranges, or socks rolled into a ball. It unifies people from all social class."
But the global soccer community is not always one big happy family. Hooliganism and riots have long stalked the game. Certain matches have hyped national rivalries, in one case even triggering a "Soccer War" between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969. Unsettling geopolitical combinations like Serbia-Montenegro vs. Croatia or the US vs. Iran could emerge in the latter stages of this year's cup.
The German hosts of the World Cup have their eye on other possible troubles. Particular fears have been raised about legalized prostitution and racism. Then there is the mooted visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to support his nation's team. German officials would rather he stayed away, given his recent remarks about Jews, the Holocaust, and Israel.
For the tournament winners, there are many dividends beyond the honor of being called world champion. All of the seven countries to win the trophy have experienced, however temporarily, a "World Cup effect." When Uruguay beat Brazil in 1950, the victory helped cement a nascent sense of nationhood in a country with a large immigrant population. When West Germany won in 1954, less than a decade on from the rubble of 1945, it became a symbol of resurrection.
Finally, France's first victory in 1998 was hailed as its most glorious moment since 1945. A million revelers poured onto the Champs Elysees. President Jacques Chirac's poll numbers shot up. Much was made of the "rainbow team" of Frenchmen, black and Arab second-generation immigrants.
"All those postwar problems - rebuilding France, decolonization, the war in Algeria, unemployment, social, and racial divisions - the World Cup victory was seen as a step on the way to coming to terms with it all," says Geoffrey Hare, the author of "Football in France."
In this year's tournament, watch for Ivory Coast, perhaps Africa's strongest contender, but one with a wretched recent history of civil war. A successful run for the West African side may do wonders for reconciliation, analysts say. Soccer has a certain power to unify in Africa: Fighting in Liberia ceased when their star player, George Weah, was on the pitch; and Nigeria's civil war halted for two days in 1967 so both sides could watch visiting Pele play in a match.
"It would mean an enormous amount to Africans in general if an African side won the cup," says Richard Giulianotti, a Scottish academic and author of "Football in Africa." "There are national and ethnic rivalries, but there is a broader pan-Africanism which will see most people backing an African team to do well."
Defeat, however, can have a deleterious effect: Britain's Labour government in 1970 blamed electoral defeat partly on England's sudden exit from the World Cup a few days earlier. Andrés Escobar, a Colombian defender who scored on his own goal in the 1994 World Cup, was shot dead upon returning home.
Economies, too, may not escape unscathed. Academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology contend that a World Cup defeat has, on average, led to sizeable stock market falls in the country concerned. Winning the Cup, on the other hand, normally adds around 0.7 percentage points to the victor's economic growth, according to economists at Dutch Bank ABN AMRO.
Ultimately, it's just a game - isn't it?
Legendary English coach Bill Shankly came to a different conclusion.
"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death," he once remarked. "I'm very disappointed with that attitude."
"I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."
Friday, June 9:
Germany vs. Costa Rica, 11:55 a.m., ESPN2
Poland vs. Ecuador, 2: 55 p.m., ESPN2
Saturday, June 10:
England vs. Paraguay, 9 a.m., ABC
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Sweden, 11:30 a.m., ABC
Argentina vs. Ivory Coast, 2:55 p.m., ESPN2
Sunday, June 11:
Serbia-Mont. vs. Netherlands, 8:55 a.m., ESPN2
Mexico vs. Iran, 11:30 a.m., ABC
Angola vs. Portugal, 2:55 p.m., ESPN2
(All times Eastern Daylight Time)