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Soccer's influence: Why the world 'turns around a spinning ball'

By Simon Hooper, CNN
  • World Cup is closest thing modern world has to collective viewing experience
  • 32 teams take part in finals but more than 800 qualifiers already played
  • World Cups are woven into national histories of countries such as Brazil, England
  • FIFA has extended tournament's appeal by taking to U.S., Asia, Africa

(CNN) -- "There is absolutely no question that the world turns around a spinning ball," Eduardo Galeano wrote after Brazil beat Italy on penalties to win the 1994 World Cup final.

In his elegiac history of 20th-century soccer, "Football in Sun and Shadow," the Uruguayan author comes closer than any other writer to capturing our obsession with the "beautiful game" and its showpiece event, charting football's emergence as an all-consuming global spectacle.

Short of aliens landing on earth anytime soon -- or mankind landing on Mars -- the World Cup final is the closest thing the planet has to a collective viewing experience. Hundreds of millions will watch the final on July 11, while world governing body FIFA predicts a cumulative audience for the tournament of 26.29 billion viewers.

Kevin Alavy of sports analysts Futures Sports + Entertainments said that in terms of televised sport, the World Cup final is "on a different plane" to any other event. He puts the near-universal appeal of football down to its simplicity.

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"Many sports want to grow themselves internationally by exporting their products, but the simpler the product the easier it is to export it. The rules of football are very, very simple," Alavy told CNN.

He said FIFA had also helped boost soccer's popularity with its commitment to free-to-air broadcasting, allowing the sport to reach its maximum audience.

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Meanwhile, FIFA's policy of taking the World Cup to previously untapped markets, such as the U.S. in 1994, South Korea and Japan in 2002 and South Africa in 2010 -- the first time the tournament has been staged in Africa -- has extended its reach beyond its traditional heartlands in Europe and South America, Alavy said.

While attention now focuses on the 32 finalists, part of the World Cup's appeal lies in the fact that it touches virtually every society on the planet.

The month-long finals are actually the climax of a three-year competition which began in August 2007 when New Caledonia beat Tahiti 1-0. More than 200 FIFA member states -- it's an organization with more members than the United Nations -- have taken part, playing more than 850 qualifying matches.

Football also turns the normal order of the world on its head. Global giants such as China, India and Russia are not even represented in South Africa's showpiece, while tiny nations such as Honduras, Slovakia and Algeria will enjoy their moments in the spotlight.

Even reclusive North Korea can expect some positive coverage for once, especially if its players can match the legendary performances of their 1966 predecessors -- who sent Italy home to an early reception of rotten tomatoes on the way to the quarterfinals.

For the world's leading football-playing nations, the World Cup has been woven into their modern histories, with triumphs and defeats, both glorious and ignominious, firmly fixed in the collective memory.

"In Europe today, there may be nothing that brings a society together like a World Cup," write Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in "Why England Lose."

"Other than sport, only war and catastrophe can create this sort of national unity."

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In Brazil, where perhaps the tournament means more than anywhere else, even the country's five World Cup wins still go only some way to exorcizing the memory of the infamous defeat by Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 tournament in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium -- a match described by Brazilian author Nelson Rodrigues as an "irredeemable national catastrophe."

Traumatized by the defeat, Brazil's football authorities launched a competition to design a new kit, reasoning that the team's white jerseys were not patriotic enough. The result was the world's most famous yellow shirt.

The simpler the product the easier it is to export it. The rules of football are very, very simple
--Kevin Alavay
  • FIFA World Cup
  • FIFA
  • Brazil
  • Eduardo Galeano
  • South Africa

The country's subsequent victories have only heightened Brazilians' hunger for World Cup glory -- and misery when things go wrong.

In 2001 the country's star player Ronaldo was called to testify in front of a Senate commission investigating the circumstances surrounding the national team's 3-0 defeat by France in the 1998 final.

Other countries have their own complicated relationships with the World Cup.

For English fans, persistent failure on the sport's greatest stage, with the exception of the country's home triumph in 1966, will always be tainted by the idea that English football once ruled the world -- even if only by virtue of the fact that no other country outside the British Isles had yet to discover the sport.

"England always harks back to this golden age which realistically only exists between 1886 and 1900," football writer Jonathan Wilson, author of "The Anatomy of England," told CNN.

"It's a source of why we're so frustrated at World Cups -- when actually having won only one World Cup is a perfectly reasonable thing for a team of England's size and standing."

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Wilson said that the rarity of achieving success at the World Cup -- just seven countries have ever won the four-yearly competition -- has also enhanced its magical appeal.

Even for footballing greats such as Pele, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane, the tournament may arrive only once or twice at the peak of a player's talents, making legends of those whose careers have the good fortune to coincide with World Cup success.

"One of the key things of fandom is this yearning, this sense of loss, revelling in failure, and the World Cup appeals to those instincts," Wilson said.

"Because England have only won it once, everyone knows every detail of that 1966 triumph. Most fans would be able to name the 11 that won it, so they become revered in a way that much better players aren't."

But there may be other benefits to watching the World Cup, regardless of how your favored team performs. Kuper and Szymanski claim the tournament actually makes people happier by creating a collective event that helps us value relationships with family, friends and the world.

"It seems that football tournaments create those relationships: people gathered together in pubs and living rooms, a whole country suddenly caring about the same event. A World Cup is the sort of common project that otherwise barely exists in modern societies," they write, even claiming that suicide rates in many countries fall in World Cup years.

Galeano, perhaps writing as a native of a country whose World Cup glories belong in a distant golden age, would surely appreciate the therapeutic qualities of a great football match.

"When good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it," he wrote.

At the start of "Football in Sun and Shadow," Galeano dedicates the book to a group of children who had crossed his path "once upon a time, years ago."

The kids had been playing football, Galeano recalled, and were singing: "We lost, we won, either way we had fun."

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