World Cup Preview: We are the World

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DAN CHUNG/REUTERS

Sven-Goran Eriksson

Over the past year we've been painfully reminded that the clash of cultures can be horrific. Hindus and Muslims slaughtering one another on the subcontinent. Jews and Palestinians locked in a death grip on the Levant. Extremist Muslims declaring jihad on America and destroying cherished symbols of that country's might. The hackneyed metaphor, deployed in countless books about the sport, is that football is war. But now that we have again seen the very real violence and despair of battle, we have to affirm that no, football is not war. Rather, it is a game of uncommon, life-affirming beauty. When Christian Vieri takes the ball at pace on the outside of his left foot and drives it home with exquisite precision, or when Hidetoshi Nakata dribbles past five defenders and launches a perfect cross that leaves the opposition's entire back line flat-footed, we see in a glorious instant the wondrous capabilities of the world's finest athletes. The game, we are reminded, is an act of creation, not destruction.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]But to the hundreds of millions of fans who will watch the World Cup from around the globe, football is also more than a mere game. After all, a football team is a vessel for a nation's habits and aspirations, psychoses and strengths, triumphs and disappointments. Brazil's beautiful game. France's Les Bleus. Italy's Azurri. Nigeria's Super Eagles. They are more than teams. They are 11-man embodiments of national pride and passion. And yet the World Cup may be the only medium where national pride can be flagrantly, vividly manifest without diplomats being recalled and troops mobilized. The Cup will provide a joyous month?a cosmic moment?when we can for once set aside and even celebrate our cultural differences, in the midst of an era that sometimes seems all too ugly and fractious. An Englishman may grudgingly admire an Argentine's playmaking; a Saudi might nod approvingly at an American's ball handling. In this angry and uncertain era, we need these matches more than ever.

In the first few weeks of the last World Cup, France reverberated with hundreds of thousands of excited football supporters. Kilted, blue-faced Scotsmen roared merrily along the Champs Elysées, and expatriate Iranians descending on Lyons could barely contain their pride at making the finals. Orange-draped Dutchmen in full march and samba-stepping Brazilians in canary yellow clashed only in tempos and hues as they passed one another, each figuring they were on the way to victory.

Only the French seemed bored by the event?until, that is, France beat Italy to arrive in the semifinals. Perhaps the nation was merely expecting inevitable disappointment, as had befallen the superb French team of 1986. But the 1998 équipe de France proved unbeatably special. A defense without a chink, and a midfield without peer, led by the incomparable Zinedine Zidane.

This time, in the first World Cup ever held in Asia, the French will have millions of fervent supporters back home. And France, led again by Zidane, are 4 to 1 favorites to win. But an almost desperate Argentine team figures to challenge, as does Brazil, eager to avenge its 3-0 humiliation by France in '98. Among the Europeans, Italy's rejuvenated attack makes them a threat. But the smarter bet may be Portugal?brilliant in midfield, and efficient enough elsewhere to stand a real chance of reaching the final four. As for the Eastern Europeans: Croatia's too old; Slovenia's too young; Poland's come on too fast; and Russia's too hard to figure. Meanwhile, Asian fans can expect a rough?and most likely short?ride for Japan, South Korea and China, which is appearing in the World Cup finals for the first time.

This Cup will be different on two counts: Japan and Korea. Here we have cultures that seem perpetually in collision serving as the first ever co-hosts?a compromise brokered amid epic politicking among FIFA's 24-man executive committee. So far, there's been little co-anything between these two longtime nemeses. They have bickered about whose name should be first. (It's Korea.) They have bickered about the names of the mascots Ato, Nik and Kaz?too Japanese, say the Koreans. They have bickered about the shape of the goal.

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