Soccer is the most Democratic of sports. It can be played on any surface with almost any object, if not a soccer ball then a tin can, a stone, a rolled-up pair of socks. It does not require elaborate equipment: no pads, no helmets. You don't have to be 6 ft. 8 in. tall or as wide as a house. You just need to be nimble and talented and willing to practice--a lot. Greatness is egalitarian; the finest players come from every income bracket, every religion and ethnic group, every nation on the planet.
The world's most popular sport is about to embark on the world's most popular event, the World Cup. From June 11 to July 11, hundreds of millions of people will tune in to at least one of the 64 matches on TV. This special double issue, published in all of our editions around the world, takes a look at the beautiful game but also uses soccer as a lens through which to view globalization and how the world, from Seattle to Soweto, is changing. The issue was ably edited by Michael Elliott and Bill Saporito--both rabid soccer fans--and designed by Tom Miller.
Why did we choose soccer for our summer double issue this year? Partly because the World Cup is a political event as well as a sporting one. Every four years, the Cup's optimistic internationalism seems to triumph over sectarian and national differences. As the great Cameroonian player Samuel Eto'o, the subject of our main story by John Carlin, notes, soccer "is the best weapon against political conflict." Sometimes the World Cup has reflected crude nationalism--as in 1978, when the Argentine junta used the tournament to prop up its legitimacy--but most of the time, it brings the world together. Countries that won't negotiate will play each other on the pitch and shake hands afterward.
This year the World Cup is in South Africa, the first time it has been held on the African continent. As Alex Perry writes in his powerful story about soccer in Soweto, the continent has much at stake: it is fighting the world's perception that it has been left behind, a place of war and famine and dysfunctional states. But in reality, Africa is doing well: economic growth is robust; democratic elections are removing old autocracies. And South Africa itself continues to move forward, slowly but inexorably fulfilling the promise of its first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela.
From June 26 to 28 in Cape Town, right in the middle of the World Cup, TIME, along with FORTUNE and CNN, will host the 2010 Global Forum. More than 300 leaders from 34 nations have signed up for this conference that Rob Davies, South Africa's Minister of Trade and Industry, calls "the business and economic centerpiece of the World Cup period." The theme of the conference is the New Global Opportunity, and participants include former President Bill Clinton, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and the heads of China Mobile, Citigroup, Daimler, DuPont and Deutsche Bank. They will join more than 20 members of the TIME 100, our annual list of the world's most influential people.