The World Cup runneth over

In material terms, such as trade, globalization may be faltering. But soccer’s soaring popularity hints at a better view of globalization, one that bends upward.

Children and local soccer players in Santiago, Chile, prepare to play a friendly match Nov. 18 ahead of World Children's Day and the World Cup.

Starting Sunday, much of humanity will be watching the World Cup, cheering for victories, eying the players, and comparing statistics over the next month of televised soccer matches in Qatar. One statistic already stands out: The number of teams in the next World Cup, to be held four years hence in North America, will jump from 32 to 48.

For decades, soccer has helped shrink the world, bringing people and nations closer. Since the first World Cup in 1930, when only 13 teams participated, the number of teams has grown – to 24 in 1982, then 32 in 1998 as “the beautiful game” has achieved global popularity, surpassing the Olympics on many measures.

What this trend indicates is that globalization, or the integration of humanity at many levels, is hardly ebbing, as many experts now claim. Yes, the material aspects of globalization, such as trade in goods, may not be rising as fast because of various crises, such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Yet the flow of ideas, culture, and people continues apace.

A world survey last year by the Globalism Project at Cambridge University found surprising pushback against notions of trade protectionism or populist cries for putting one’s nation first. “There is no deep divide between the mindsets of ‘open versus closed’ societies,” the survey’s authors wrote in The Guardian. Most people “tend to favor varying degrees of continued integration with the wider world.”

Soccer, or football as it is more commonly known, illustrates the point. The sport has helped make the world a better place, wrote the world’s first black global sporting star, Pelé, in a 2014 autobiography. It brings communities together and gives disadvantaged children – like him – a sense of purpose, he stated.

At a deeper level, “the game can allow hope, inspiration and magic to triumph momentarily over material realities,” wrote one of soccer’s historians, David Goldblatt, in The Independent. It is why, he adds, more than half of the entire planet will be watching the World Cup in the coming weeks.

Such shared moments reshape the best meaning of globalization. “Looking back, we probably put too much emphasis on the power of material forces like economics and technology to drive human events and bring us all together,” wrote columnist David Brooks in The New York Times.

No wonder the game is called beautiful.

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