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2006 World Cup Kicks Off in Germany

June 9, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Every four years, the world comes together
around the little black-and-white ball, a carnival scene mixing sport and
revelry with a not-so-subtle undertone of nationalism.

The World Cup 2006 edition began today across Germany.
Thirty-two teams from all around the world, Mexico,
Brazil, the U.S.,
are all here. Even the team from Togo
in West Africa qualified this time; they
brought along a voodoo priest to help.

And the host country has worked hard to accommodate the
peculiarities of soccer fans in celebration. Security at games and events is
tight, as Germany expects
some 40,000 English fans to descend on Frankfurt
on Saturday. So far, there have been no major problems.

SOCCER FAN: Good humor, good fun, and just enjoy the football.

RAY SUAREZ: But Germany has called these games
“A Time to make Friends,” a welcoming motto meant to ease any
tensions before exuberance gets out of hand. For fans and organizers alike,
there’s a lot at stake.

COSTA RICAN SOCCER FAN: The biggest upset of the World Cup
this year: Costa Rica,

COSTA RICAN SOCCER FAN: And it’s happening Friday, tonight.

Rica 1, Germany

RAY SUAREZ: Alas, that fan’s hopes were dashed. In the first
game of the cup, Costa Rica
lost to home field Germany

Taking root in the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the history and culture of the tournament,we turn to Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic magazine and author of thebook, "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory ofGlobalization."

And Sean Wilsey, editor-at-large of the literary journalMcSweeney's Quarterly, and co-editor of the book, "The Thinking Fan'sGuide to the World Cup."

And, Franklin Foer, are Americans immune to World Cup fever?

FRANKLIN FOER, Author, "How Soccer Explains theWorld": Well, there's certainly a subculture of us who are paying attentionto what's going on in Germanynow, and I think we are a growing subculture. I mean, alas, we are not swept upin World Cup fever the same way the rest of the world is.

And American soccer fans tend to be somewhat booster-ish indescribing the future of the game. We sound like kind of one of those crazyradicals on a street corner in Berkeleypredicting that the revolution is always about to happen, and it never seems tohappen right away.

But the game is growing very slowly, very steadily. Demographicsare on its side, thanks to immigration. And a lot of the kids who grew upplaying the game may not follow it passionately between World Cups, but whenWorld Cups come around they pay attention.

An international sport

RAY SUAREZ: Sean Wilsey, in a world that does pay very closeattention to soccer, there are national league tournaments, there arecontinent-wide tournaments, there are various levels of cups and internationalcompetition. What makes the World Cup so different?

SEAN WILSEY, Co-Editor, "The Thinking Fan's Guide tothe World Cup": The World Cup is different because every continent isinvolved; every country is involved.

Players who play for league teams may not be from thecountry that that league team represents, so you've got players who are playingfor money in these league games -- and they play well, and they care abouttheir teams, but it's for the paycheck -- whereas the World Cup, it's for yourcountry. And so it's deeply symbolic and meaningful, and it can really unitenations.

I think Ivory Coast is a great example of a country that'sbeen in a civil war for a number of years now. And when the team qualified forthe World Cup, President Laurent Gbagbo, who has been persecuting the North,very anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, embraced the whole team, gave them allvillas and commendations, a very mixed Muslim team.

And the two sides in the civil war said that this could bean opportunity to actually put it behind them, so it's deeply significant, notonly sporting-wise, but politically, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: So that national idea, as opposed to a club ideaof Valenciaor Manchester United, is what transcends the already great enthusiasm for thesport?

FRANKLINFOER: Exactly. I think that there aren't so many -- and especially in Europe, there aren't so many outlets for nationalism,where people can feel good about feeling patriotic about their country. And theWorld Cup is one of the rare occasions that people feel that way.

I think one of the fascinating things about the World Cup isthat it is, in a lot of ways, the ultimate expression of globalization: Theentire world is united, speaking this common vernacular of soccer; the event istied together by multinational corporations.

And yet, despite all this globalization, it is still thisincredible festival of nationalism. And a lot of people thought thatglobalization would smoosh nationalism, but the World Cup, in a weird way,shows that the two can coexist.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that's kind of the paradox though. I mean,we were told for a long time by big thinkers that countries would matter lessin the 21st century, as currencies became common, as borders were being erased.You've got the rising E.U., and here countries matter a great deal.

FRANKLIN FOER: Yes, trytelling that to Englandfans who are living and dying for what happens in this tournament and arewalking around with their country's standard.

RAY SUAREZ: Sean Wilsey, when you look at the club sides,the players come from all over. I mean, the players for a famous side in France or Italy might not have very manyFrenchmen or Italians on it. Is that part of the attraction, to have a unifiednational side?

SEAN WILSEY: It very much is. One of the funniest pieces in"The Thinking Fans Guide" is by Nick Hornby. And Nick writes abouthow, when he was young, his idea of a fantasy team would have been the nationalteam, because that's when all the English players who played for all thedifferent league teams would come together and all the best ones would be onthe national team, whereas now it's almost a nostalgic and different kind ofexperience.

While the most star-filled team in England is aclub team, it's all foreigners -- not all, but largely foreigners. It's calledChelsea. And it's owned by a Russian, and it is dominant. It just won theEnglish League.

So now you only really do see English players playingtogether, and they're not always the best players in the English leagues,because a lot of them are foreign, but you do get to see an all-English team onthe national team. So those two things have switched, you know, in the last 10years.

No shortage of rivalies

RAY SUAREZ: Is there an ugly side or a darker side to thatnationalism and what it brings out during an event like the World Cup?

FRANKLINFOER: Yes, sure. I mean, over the course of the next month, I guarantee youwe'll see fans from losing teams go on rampages across their country. They mayeven beat up some immigrants who are living within their midst, and thishappens in every tournament. And I'm sure in some of the stadiums we may seesome traces of racism.

But on the other hand, I think that what the World Cup showsis that nationalism is not a pure evil, that it can also be a wonderful,beautiful sort of thing, and not at all harmful.

RAY SUAREZ: Sean, what about on the field of play itself,rather than in the stands, when former imperial powers play one of theircolonies, or a former invader plays a former occupied country?

SEAN WILSEY: Well, there's a potential for a lot of gamesthat fit that description. Trinidad and Tobago are going to be playing England,and so that's colony versus colonizer.

And, as Frank actually pointed out in a piece he wrote forthe book, surprisingly enough, you would think that the colony would actuallytend to be more inspired to actually best their former colonizer. But the wayit often works out historically is that the former colonizer really has a lotto prove.

And, throughout past World Cups, colonizers have usually actuallydefeated their former colonies. Trinidad and Tobago does not have a very good chance.They are the longest odds in the entire tournament at 1,000 to 1. So Englandthinks they're going to win that one.

But you never know: Underdogs do triumph in the World Cup,and Trinidad and Tobago could be surprising this year. I hope they are.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, long odds, but also the smallest countryin the tournament at the same time.


RAY SUAREZ: It's a tiny place.

Playing in Germany

RAY SUAREZ: Franklin, the cupbeing played for the first time in a unified Germany.

FRANKLINFOER: That's right.

RAY SUAREZ: How is that important?

FRANKLIN FOER: Well, Germanyhas actually used soccer as a way of reintegrating themselves into thecommunity of nations. After the war, they won the 1954 World Cup, surprisingly,and this was a great psychological boost to the country, in which they feltlike they were able to feel good about Germany in a publicly,internationally acceptable sort of way.

Then, in 1990, they won the World Cup again, which was atriumph that occurred just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there was acertain sense of national euphoria that came with this.

And this World Cup is, I think, an example of a very mature Germanythat really doesn't have a lot of angst about the past, showing itself off in avery modern, proud way.

RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, a pick, do you have one?

FRANKLIN FOER: Listen, I hategoing with the over-dog all the time, but I've got to say Brazil.


SEAN WILSEY: You know, this is a totally imbecilic pick, butI actually think the U.S.has a real chance of going all the way. And it would be shocking, but it couldhappen.

RAY SUAREZ: Sean Wilsey, Franklin Foer, thank you, both.