Start, perhaps, with the fierce rivalry between Brazil and Argentina – among the citizenry of Bangladesh. Then move on to how support for the English Premier League, particularly Liverpool, developed in French-speaking Rwanda as a tiny refuge of joy during that nation’s genocidal civil war in the 1990s.
And finish off by looking at the mind-boggling audiences for the sport’s main event, the World Cup. FIFA, the governing body for what we call soccer and what everybody else calls football, says 3.6 billion people watched at least some portion of the last tournament, held in Russia in 2018. That was nearly half the world’s population then.
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Then move onto the negatives – the fan violence, the corruption and the rivalries that all too closely parallel dangerous sectarian and religious rifts.
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And consider FIFA. Yes FIFA, the organization that preaches coming together but serves as a platform for autocracy’s grievances against democracy. It is not a stretch to argue that the attention it lavished on dictator Vladimir Putin at the 2018 World Cup, which came four years after he had illegally annexed part of Ukraine, helped encourage his decision to mount a full-on invasion this February.
It is also perfectly reasonable to point out that keeping this year’s World Cup in Qatar after it had been determined that graft had been involved in the original decision creates a perverse incentive going forward.
So it is no surprise that this year’s tournament, coming at a turbulent moment in history, would unfold to humongous audiences, touching stories and multiple controversies. Team USA goes into Saturday's match against Netherlands after having beat back a sporting and geopolitical siege from Iran. And periodic protests have broken out over Qatar’s abysmal record on human and labor rights.
A catalyst for change
Nonetheless, the good news is that the World Cup is breaking through. Not the World Cup of false equivalencies preached by FIFA, but the World Cup as it is actually happening, with real people playing soccer to the best of their abilities, much to the delight of billions. The evidence is that it is having some undeniable positives.
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Its biggest impact could be in China, the mega-country once thought to be on an arc toward democracy but which has recently swung in the opposite direction. Protests over the government’s draconian and never-ending COVID-19 lockdowns have now grown so large as to pose a significant threat to the communist government.
One of the catalysts of theses protests has been the World Cup, specifically the sight on television of stadiums and plazas in Qatar filled with reveling, unmasked soccer fans.
People in significant parts of the country consider the ability to watch the World Cup something of a human right, making it hard for any regime to not show it and still argue that its power is legitimate and that it cares for its people. The Chinese government, as much as it may have wanted to, decided it couldn’t not air the event.
While Chinese state television is now editing out close-up scenes of fans, this only goes so far. It’s impossible to watch a World Cup game and not see the crowds. And it’s impossible to edit out all the maskless people, particularly those in the first few rows who often show up in the background as the game is being played.
Making a difference in Iran
Iran is another place where the World Cup appears to be having an impact. Protests there have been going on since September and have, like in China, picked up in recent days. The issue is also repressive government in general but specifically the treatment of women: Mahsa Amini, 22, was arrested for not being properly veiled and died in the custody of the so-called morality police.
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While there is no direct connection to the World Cup, the fact that Iran is a participant this year has focused international attention on that country and, therefore, the protests on its streets. Last Saturday, the U.S. soccer federation even posted Iran's national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying it supports Iranian protesters ahead of the two nations' World Cup match just days later. After pushback from Tehran, though, the federation deleted those social media posts.
Jason Rezaian, an American journalist who spent more than a year in Iranian prisons on trumped up charges, wrote in the Washington Post this week that he actually was hoping Iran would advance at the expense of Team USA because it would continue focusing attention on what is happening in Tehran and other cities.
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The World Cup is messy and chaotic, led by a troubled and pernicious governing body. The event often involves spending fortunes on stadiums that could better be used elsewhere.
Nevertheless, as it plays out it is hard to deny that this World Cup has been a force for good. Maybe that is why they call it the beautiful game.
Dan Carney is a former USA TODAY editorial writer.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Cup players, fans prove it's a force for good on China, Iran