World Cup 2014: Why is the World Cup so popular?

Like the Olympics, the Brazil World Cup stirs deep strains of national pride. But unlike the Olympics, it’s not about individual feats in highly specialized events.

Victor R. Caivano/AP
Children kick around a soccer ball outside the Independencia Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on Wednesday. The 2014 World Cup is set to begin Thursday, with Brazil and Croatia competing in the opening match in Sao Paulo.

As the top tournament in the world’s most popular sport, soccer’s Brazil World Cup draws nations from every continent.

Rich nations and poor compete on a level field in a simple, fluid team sport controlled by players, not coaches. No timeouts. No hands. Just 90 minutes of hustle, skill, strategy, and cooperation.

In what other competition could a David like Cameroon shock a Goliath like England, as they did in the 1990?

Like the Olympics, this quadrennial event stirs deep, otherwise dormant strains of national pride. But unlike the Olympics, there’s only one sport to focus on. And it’s not necessarily about individual feats of athleticism (although that's evident), endurance, or skill in highly specialized, often obscure events.

Fewer variables, more teamwork, more equality, more popularity, the World Cup is the Grand Daddy of sporting events.

In soccer loving nations, people live for the World Cup. Kids skip school. Workplace productivity plummets. Populist presidents call national holidays.

Then, clad in their nations’ colors, fans gather around giant screens in city parks, pack into small living rooms, or swarm fuzzy TV sets in slums.

With faces painted, they bite nails, gnash teeth, scream at referees, and erupt into spasms of glee if their team wins.

Die-hard fans who scrimped and saved to go to Brazil to support their team have just joined the world’s biggest party; South Korean fans chant in unison until they’re hoarse, grown Dutch men cover themselves in orange, and Brazilian beauties samba till they can’t samba no more.

The earth will still turn, China will still trade barbs with Japan, and bipartisanship will still be a rarity in Washington, but for one month, the world will take a deep breath, relax, and come together for something fun – and fair.

That's why the World Cup is a big deal.

[Editor's note: The original version of this article appeared on June 11, 2010.]

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