The World’s Major Sports Event
Is it baseball’s World Series? American football’s Super Bowl? Or has it become professional basketball’s play-off series?
THE above are the team sports events that probably come to mind, if you are a North American. Yet, outside the United States—except in a few places—comparatively little is heard of these events. With soccer (known throughout most of the world as football) it is different.
The German magazine Der Spiegel said of the 1974 world soccer championship: “At least one billion persons—from Santiago to Sofia, from Helsinki to Hobart—are expected to be in front of their television screens for the final game.”
One billion persons! That is a quarter of the world’s population—nearly five times the population of the United States! As Der Spiegel observed: “That is more than ever bowed their heads in the direction of Mecca at prayer time. And all the Christian churches put together have never been able to gather that many believers to their altars at one time, not even at Christmas.”
Yes, soccer is by far the world’s favorite sport. Up to 200,000 and more persons have attended a single game. “There is scarcely a subject in this country that people feel so strongly about,” notes Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. And now soccer fever is again rising rapidly, since the world soccer championship is on the line.
World Cup 1978
The attention of hundreds of millions of soccer fans is now focused on Argentina. There, during this month of June, 38 games are being played to decide who will win the World Cup, symbol of international soccer supremacy. Every four years the World Cup games are held, with a different country hosting them each time.
The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing body of soccer, is the sponsor of the World Cup. More than 140 nations are FIFA members. The World Cup games were first held in 1930, and they have since become the world’s most popular sports event, with the possible exception of the Olympic Games.
This is how the 16 teams reach the World Cup finals: Countries that belong to FIFA pick an all-star team from their nation’s best players. These men train together as a unit, and they play regional elimination rounds. During the past two years, for example, a series of 248 qualification games between 95 countries narrowed the field down to the 16 teams now in Argentina.
Host country Argentina has provided over $400,000,000 to help finance the World Cup. From a business standpoint it may be money well spent, judging from the great worldwide interest. Tens of thousands of fans from outside Argentina are expected to attend the games.
Soccer Fever Grows
For many months now radio stations in the Federal Republic of Germany have been reminding: ‘It is just 100 [or another number of] days to the World Cup.’ Businesses have been offering customers who purchase their merchandise an opportunity to win an all-expense-paid trip to Argentina for the games. About 150 fans from Scotland are making the trip in an unusual way—by submarine.
The vast majority of fans, of course, will be watching the games on television. German TV, for instance, will show two or three games live on each of the 12 days of play. Other games will receive delayed coverage. During the 1974 World Cup, there were some 92 hours of soccer on German TV!
During the games in 1974, factories closed. Religious organizations adjusted meeting times so as not to conflict with the games. In Rio de Janeiro, criminal activities in the city reportedly hit an all-time low. In Zaïre, bus drivers abandoned their vehicles as their nation’s team took the field. In Rome, negotiations to restore the dying government were disrupted when leaders walked out to watch the games.
The games seemingly take on a religious significance to many. The New York Times Magazine observes: “Football (that is to say, soccer) has become in the postwar European era a kind of new mass religion, with millions praying for salvation in the sports stadia and tens of millions faithfully following the services on color television.”
But just as religious fanaticism has been dangerous, even deadly, so has soccer fanaticism. It has not only hindered many from developing wholesome spiritual interests and qualities; it has also led to riots, killings and even war.
Only a Game, or What?
Soccer often fans the flames of nationalism, with frightening results. Consider what happened during a contest in Lima, Peru, in 1964.
Some 50,000 fans packed the stadium. Late in the game, Argentina was leading one to zero when Peru knocked in a goal. However, the referee noted a foul, which disqualified the tying goal. The angered, disappointed fans rioted; 328 people were killed and over 1,000 were injured. “A heavy iron door to the locker room probably saved the lives of the referee and players,” noted the New York Times.
How important is winning and losing in soccer? When considering what also happened between Honduras and El Salvador, it makes one wonder. In June 1969 the two countries played a series of games to determine which team would qualify for the 1970 World Cup. Tensions and hostilities fanned by the games were a factor in the outbreak of war. The Americana Annual for 1970, under the heading “The ‘Soccer War,’” notes that more than 2,000 soldiers and civilians were killed.
True, these are extreme examples, but soccer violence is by no means rare. In Britain, according to one report, one in four male fans has been involved in violence. Also, 100 fans a week there reportedly land in jail for soccer hooliganism.
The 1975 Britannica Book of the Year acknowledged the “unhappy saga of violence on and off the field,” and said: “Trenches, moats, barricades, and other constraining impedimenta were employed.” But despite such measures, violence remains a feature of many soccer games.
Yet the problem is not only with soccer. “If attitudes don’t change,” warns the team physician of an American professional basketball team, “we’re going to have to do what they do in South America; put up a fence and a moat to keep the fans away from players.”
What is responsible for such problems with sports? Is there, for example, something fundamentally wrong with soccer that causes these terrible consequences?
An Appealing Sport
From simply watching soccer, it is incomprehensible how the sport itself could be the source of such troubles. Basically, soccer is an uncomplicated, wholesome game. There are 11 players on each team, as there are in American football, and the playing field is approximately the same size. At each end of the field is a goal, which is a 24-foot- (7-meter-) wide, eight-foot- (2.4-meter-) high cage with netting to catch the ball. The objective is to propel the round ball past the defending goalkeeper into the cage for a goal. The team with the most goals after 90 minutes of play wins.
The goalkeeper is the only player who may use his hands. The 10 other players on each team may only kick the ball with their feet or hit it with their heads or bodies when the ball is in play. The ability of skilled players to dribble the ball, pass it with accuracy, and propel it in for a goal without the use of their hands is remarkable. Chest-high passes are brought by foot obediently to the ground and then dribbled along as if tied by a string to the feet. And an over-the-head pass may be driven home for a goal by the powerful head thrust of a leaping player.
What many like about soccer is that it is not as dangerous to play as are some other sports. “Soccer is more finesse and endurance,” observed one father who is happy that his boys chose to play soccer rather than American football. Of course, there is a certain degree of danger of being hurt when playing soccer, even as there is, for example, in playing basketball. This is especially true when the game is played with undue intensity to win at all costs. So use good judgment when playing.
Another advantage of soccer is that persons of average size can excel. Pele, for example, who is considered the greatest player of all time, is only 5 feet 9 inches (175 centimeters) tall and weighs 165 pounds (75 kilograms). In addition, hardly any equipment, besides the ball, is required to play soccer. So, the expense is minimal.
Soccer is at last becoming popular in the United States. Last August 14 a sellout crowd of 77,691 packed New Jersey’s Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands for a game. A major factor in this upsurge of popularity are the many famous players who have come to the United States, being lured by huge salaries. The New York Cosmos, for example, paid Brazil’s Pele $4.75 million to play for three years, and Franz Beckenbauer, who led Germany to the world championship in 1974, $3 million for four years. But what promises to make soccer a permanent major sport in the U.S. is the fact that it is catching on at the “grass roots” level. Some 5,000 high schools and 700 colleges now have teams.
Perhaps you are among the hundreds of millions who either play soccer, attend the games, or watch them on TV. Are you affected beneficially? How can you avoid adverse effects?
[Box/Picture on page 17]
Contenders for the 1978 World Cup
West Germany Austria