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World Cup boosts growth, binds ties, even sparks war

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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.

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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."

Victories bring 0.7 percent boost to growth

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."

How to catch the Cup action

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)

Source: FIFA