All the World’s a Soccer Ball

The sight astounded my friend Tony.  He had entered another world far, far different than anything he had experienced.  I had warned him.  He did not believe it when I told him what to expect.  He had been to stately Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., before, but not for anything like this.  In many ways that day for me in 1978 was when the modern era of globalization became real, although its forces were already underway.

Little did we know then that the arguments among the Chinese elites were underway on whether or how to bring China out of its communist shell into the real world.  Only six years prior, Richard Nixon had astounded the world by travelling to Peking to set off the debate.  Three decades later, the world has changed, so that Beijing ranks as important as Washington.

On June 25, 1978, the forces of globalization were in plain sight, though they were hidden in the form of sport.  Constitution Hall that day was a sea of blue and white and orange.  It was the championship match of the World Cup.  Long before anyone could walk into any sports bar in any town in America and watch it, the rumor that we could view the final game direct and live from Buenos Aires astounded me.  A couple of phone calls turned rumor into fact and two tickets in my hand.

A screen – not as huge as can be constructed today – had been rigged up and through it came a shaky picture at first without sound.  The picture would freeze and stutter at times as technicians scurried to make things right but already we could see the crowd within the mammoth stadium where Argentina would host The Netherlands.  The stadium was pandemonium – like the hall itself.  Wild Argentine fans were in the vast majority in the hall, and they dominated it with chants and yells and impromptu renditions of their country’s unflattering national anthem.  I felt sorry for the Dutch supporters in orange who in a sea of blue looked like mold on cheese.

From his seat, my friend Tony looked around him at the spectacle, in which the entire world was participating except for the United States.

Memories of that day long ago flooded my mind yesterday when on ESPN Germany hosted The Netherlands in an international friendly match from Hamburg.  More than years have passed by; a new world has emerged that America must understand from head to toe instead of taking anything for granted, although it is difficult.  After the German-Dutch match, dedicated fans could watch – live – on their laptops – a soccer match between Portugal and Bosnia to qualify for next year’s European championship.

Beyond their entertainment value, these games represent the true nature of globalization.  It is changing relationships and making new ones.  Understanding the immediacy of a superficial sporting event only hints at the wider, deeper and unseen connections that exist between millions of other individuals and between powerful institutions. The importance of this new chapter in human history goes beyond the direct impact of an al-Qaeda terrorist cell using the internet.  That is real enough.  But more so are the financial and transactional relationships that every day shape our lives – and that we do not know of yet change us.

After Argentina had won, I remember walking out of Constitution Hall and stepping aside as the Argentines rushed into the street to celebrate.  Tourists making their way from the Washington Monument along 17th Street towards the White House looked confused.  They did not understand what was going on.

Some still might not.

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