If an extraterrestrial polling organization were to get interested in a planet called Earth and then try to identify one common topic of conversation of its denizens circa mid-June 2010, it might have been puzzled by a curious phenomenon. In practically every corner of the planet, millions of its inhabitants seemed to be utterly preoccupied with a medium-sized round object being mercilessly kicked around by colorfully dressed men scurrying back and forth on a green pitch amid a cacophony of chants, whistles and other sounds capable of drowning out a spaceship launch.
There may be some exaggeration in that picture, but not much. The soccer World Cup that will open in South Africa on June 11 is expected to attract a global audience of over 26 billion during the month-long tournament. It's already the talk of the town in countries big and small -- be it the 32 lucky qualifiers or those who failed to make it.
We, at the United Nations, are not immune to World Cup fever. During this once-every-four-years championship, the whole building on the East River would be abuzz with soccer talk. Actually, this year, with the iconic UN Headquarters undergoing major renovations, soccer buzz will spread around several buildings in mid-town Manhattan where thousands of UN staff have been temporarily relocated. Once the matches begin, Monday morning quarterbacking, to borrow an expression from an American sister sport, will continue unabated -- around water coolers, in the hallways or delegate dining rooms.
There are many reasons why this tournament enjoys such a following at the UN. With its boundary-crossing appeal, soccer, of course, finds a ready audience in a universal international organization that unites 192 Member States and is serviced by a multinational and multilingual secretariat.
But there are other factors that come into play. First of all, sport in general is viewed by the UN as an effective way of bringing nations closer together, building bridges among cultures and helping to overcome mistrust and instead promote better understanding and cooperation. Not surprisingly, the UN has a special envoy "on Sport for Development and Peace," whose main task is to lead international efforts toward that end.
Looking at soccer rules, some often point to certain parallels -- metaphorical and otherwise -- between how the game is played and the way the Organization tries to do its job. One could see, for instance, the Security Council acting as a referee attempting to ensure that competition, not matter how aggressive, does not get out of hand, and if it does, takes immediate steps to instill order. While soccer referees wield yellow and red cards, the Council adopts statements, resolutions and sanctions that perform similar functions. As in the game, those measures may not always be totally successful -- and are frequently resented by the punished parties as unfair -- but both are sorely needed.
Two international soccer stars Michael Ballack of Germany and Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo found another use for the carding metaphor. Let's "give AIDS the red card," they said, urging World Cup teams to support a UN-backed global campaign to reduce HIV/AIDS infections in mothers and babies.
This leads me to an example that carries particular significance for this year's World Cup, which for the first time in history is being held on the African continent. Scoring goals, of course, is the main objective in the game of soccer. The UN, meanwhile, is working to achieve its own goals - the so called MDGs, or Millennium Development Goals. It's a set of eight targets approved by the UN membership aimed at combating hunger, disease and poverty. While some progress has been made, many challenges remain, so in September, the UN will hold a summit to take stock and plan ahead for the target date of 2015.
With MDGs holding vital importance for Africa, eight of Africa's best known musicians got together to record a song calling for commitment to achieve the MDGs. Entitled 8 Goals for Africa, the song, an original idea by the UN Country Team in South Africa, and the accompanying video will be played throughout the World Cup, across all the fan parks and public viewing areas in South Africa. "There's no time to delay," the artists sing, "the Africa we dream of/ only 8 goals away."
I found myself humming to its catchy tune. But as you sing along, there is a poignant reminder running though the unpretentious lyrics: we can't be indifferent to the adversity affecting others; let's do something to help.
As the World Cup gets under way and strikers begin to hit their targets, I hope the song about a different set of goals will not get lost in the din. It may actually give our extraterrestrial pollster a somewhat different perspective on humanity's favorite pastime.