The football World Cup, which reaches its climax in Germany this weekend, is the greatest multicultural sporting extravaganza of modern times. Its only conceivable rival, the Olympic Games, is a multi-sports activity in which all countries who are part of the Olympic movement can take part in a tournament that is concentrated in two weeks usually in a single city. Even at the Olympics, however, the largest attendances at the Games have been for the football tournament,despite the fact that it used to be restricted to amateur players and now consists of players under the age of 23.
The World Cup, by contrast, is usually spread over a whole country, or even two as in Korea and Japan in 2002. It lasts four weeks and involves more countries in its qualifying competition than there are members of the United Nations. Attendances are huge. This year more than 3 million people watched the games live, and probably several times that number at public screening areas throughout Germany and the world. Television audiences run into the billions, with women making up approximately forty per cent of those watching. An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Australians were in Germany during the World Cup, most without tickets for games but there to take part in the experience.
Though it is ostensibly a sport, the World Cup does not have a level playing field. In the 18 competitions since it began in 1930 only seven countries have won the Cup. Six of these took part in the quarter-finals in Germany—Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, France, and England. The only winner not present was Uruguay, eliminated by Australia on that never-to-be-forgotten night in Sydney last November. The two outsiders in 2006 who reached the last eight were Ukraine and Portugal.
One reason for this imbalance is that in recent years the top players in the world have become concentrated in the major leagues in Europe. It seems that only players taking part at the highest level of club football have the knowledge, consistency, skills and stamina to win the World Cup. As we have seen with the current generation of young Australians, who represented the country so brilliantly, they had to go to Europe to establish themselves as top-class players and test themselves against the best on a regular basis. Hence the likes of Vince Grella and Marco Bresciano had no fear of their Italian opponents in the round of sixteen, since they come up against them week in, week out in Serie A in Italy for their club side Parma.
One English club, Arsenal, provided players for the squads of ten countries taking part in the World Cup finals—Germany, Ivory Coast, Switzerland, England, Sweden, France, Togo, Spain, Holland, and Brazil. And they have signed one of the Czech Republic’s players since the tournament began. Only a country like Italy, with one of the strongest domestic leagues, can afford to field a team of home-grown and domestic players and hope to be in with a chance of winning the Cup. Even Italy included Gennaro Gattuso, the hard-working, hard-tackling midfield enforcer who had a spell at Glasgow Rangers as a teenager.
The impact of the World Cup can be felt in the strangest places. It was a radical feminist writer who pointed out several years ago that the only time the guns fell silent during the civil war in Lebanon was when the World Cup was being played. ‘Perhaps the way to solve the Middle East torment is to give the men round-the-clock live male contact sports,’ she wrote, though this time Hamas and the Israelis seem not to have paid enough attention to the Cup.
Here in Australia we have seen the wonderful phenomenon of sport dividing to unite, as people from all the countries which make up this nation have watched Australia and the country whose heritage they share and appreciate come together in football competition. Families split for the duration of the matches but then came together in celebration once the result was determined. Certainly many Australians ceased to be involved once Australia was eliminated, but many more, having experienced what the World Cup football means, will be following the tournament to its conclusion, while those thousands who made the pilgrimage to Germany will return with experiences which they will never forget.
The Peter Costellos, Hugh Morgans and Peter Moores of this world who worry about divided loyalties among Australia’s multicultural population need have no fears. The more we know about the world, and international football is a great way to learn about it, the better a place it will be for its citizens. Just talk to the young and old Aussies who took part in the largest outward movement of Australian population since the Second World War.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 8 July 2006, p. 33 under the heading, Divided and united by the Cup. It appeared in full on the Football Federation of Victoria website on 13 July 2006.)