Italy outlasted France on Sunday in a World Cup final watched by an estimated 1.2 billion people — 17 percent of the world's population.
The game capped off a 2006 Germany World Cup marked by some mediocre play and questionable (to say the least) officiating. But a lackluster tournament will do little to tarnish the simple beauty of the game for billions of fans worldwide, this writer included, who must now, with heads bowed, return home to make peace with their loved ones, reconnect with friends, and — ahem — make up for a month of lost productivity at work.
These fans will attest that, like no other sporting event, the quadrennial World Cup reaches beyond the chalked lines on the field. Every four years, soccer stimulates economies, spurs political careers, ends marriages, converts the previously agnostic, and — literally — kills. So as memories of lost opportunities and bungled calls on the field quickly fade, it's the stories outside the stadiums that will linger with us for months to come. Just long enough for the start of qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Soccer As Economy
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has good reason to be the Italian team's biggest supporter, whether he is a soccer fan or not. Not only have past World Cup champions heightened their president's popularity, but now there's proof that winning nations enjoy economic growth for months after the celebratory bubbly has dried up.
World Cup victors enjoy a boost in investor confidence, resulting in a growth in the gross domestic product for a year after the tournament, according to the Dutch-based bank ABN AMRO. Bank analysts concluded that the last three World Cup-winning nations have profited from an average of 0.7 percent in GDP. Stock indexes for the losing nation, the bank says, drop up to 25 percent — not good news for an already stagnant French economy.
First-time participant Trinidad and Tobago, the smallest nation to ever play in the Cup, was quick to grasp the reach of the tournament outside the stadiums. Trinidad and Tobago's government wants to follow up on the team's success by fanning cultural and trade missions across the globe in an effort to spur the nation's tourism industry and economy.
"We are now even better prepared for international relations in any field, whether it be in LNG (liquefied natural gas), steel, ammonia, or methanol," Prime Minister Patrick Manning told the Inter Press Service upon receiving national team members as national heroes. "We are now more inspired than ever to take on the world."
Speaking of taking on the world, host nation Germany did just that and sparkled as a joyous and unified country. Fears and terrorism and rampaging hooligans and massive prostitution rings never materialized. What did emerge was an image of a country that has moved beyond its shameful past — one that embraced the world with fun-loving spirit. Danke Deutschland.
World Cup Gains Ground In The U.S.
If you were listening to some U.S. soccer "pundits," you might think that soccer fans were an official armed wing of al Qaeda. Ratings-starved Tucker Carlson of MSNBC called soccer "anti-American," and Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press suggested that the U.S. government use World Cup gatherings across the country to round up immigrant "illegals."
But even soccer's biggest detractors cannot deny the progress the sport has made in the this country in the last 20 years, when the World Cup was often confused with a cricket event and the closest bar that aired matches was in Tijuana. ESPN and ABC aired every minute of this year's World Cup, with an average audience of 3.2 million per game. U.S. audiences have increased 112 percent compared to the 2002 World Cup. And an estimated crowd of 10,000 packed Boston's City Hall Plaza to watch Sunday's final on a huge screen.
Perhaps soccer, a foreign invention, will never compete with football, baseball and basketball — all homegrown sports. And perhaps what irks critics in this country, besides low-scoring matches, is that soccer does not depend on the United States for success. The sport is doing just fine without it. The 1.2 billion who watched Sunday's final are proof enough.
By Alfonso Serrano F