The World Cup of soccer kicks off this week, and millions of people worldwide will come together around the broadcasts, webcast, apps, social media and online commentary. Anyone with even a casual interest in soccer, or international culture and relations, or in following entertaining grudge match showdowns, is getting ready.
The sounds: there are the vuvuzelas -- those big plastic horns that one rarely sees, except in soccer. There will be cheering crowds in their national colors. There will be songs: the official World Cup song has received lukewarm reception. Apparently, Stevie Wonder's "Another Star"" from 1976 is unofficially a favorite as well, or so say the Wiki. Is it me, or are these songs, erm... similar?
The grudge matches are always interesting: Will the U.S. get to play Russia? Will Argentina play England? Will England play Germany, settling the score on their highly contested last game? Historical and political arguments tend to come into play, at least in the background, when a team is representing its country: National pride is a powerful motivator.
Some things about the 2014 World Cup will be different this time. The FIFA governing body has adopted technology this round, an innovation in professional sports, and something they resisted for a long time. The key innovation is the electronic devices embedded in the goal posts to electronically confirm goals, a task previously only entrusted to a human ref. But the human error potential created quite a stir in recent matches, notably a questionable call in the last England vs. Germany game.
The players are celebrities, some international, some only in their homelands. Some will only find their fame in this competition by some unexpected event. Interesting that none of the U.S. players has (yet) gained the notoriety many of their competitors enjoy.
Fundamentally, this World Cup, like all those that came before, is about worldwide connection. And it must be said, no one throws a party like Brazil. While the news and social media is buzzing with stories about how the Brazilians aren't ready, that's nothing new in this kind of event. Ready or not, the world is coming.
I'm fortunate to have seen previous World Cup matches in person. Argentina hosted the cup in '78 and I was there, and the U.S. hosted the World Cup in the '90s: an admirable, but unsuccessful attempt to engage the U.S. spectators in the sport that has passionate fans worldwide.
The cup begins with 32 teams divided into groups of 4 teams that by elimination will allow 1 team per group to advance to the next stage. The U.S. group is considered the Group Of Death, in other words: Good luck to us. We aren't expected to advance in a group that includes Germany -- superstars, Ghana, the favorite among African nations, and Portugal, who has the world's single most popular player and viral video superstar in Cristiano Ronaldo.
Having watched the last World Cup in 2010 as it was televised from South Africa, I remember learning more about South Africa and the off-field happenings, like Mick Jagger's bad rap as a bad luck charm. Whoever he showed up to support seemed to lose. Remember that? And I remember the pride of the late Nelson Mandela welcoming the world to his home.
When the opening ceremony begins on Thursday evening in Sao Paolo, it will be Thursday morning in the U.S. We will see a disabled person, aided by a mind-controlled exoskeleton, kicking the ceremonial first ball -- a nod to the advances technology has made possible these last four years since South Africa. And it is a wonderful leap forward.
As a mildly interested spectator, surrounded by passionate colleagues, I'm looking forward to Thursday. My daughter will be wearing her Argentina jersey, and cheering on that team with me, partly because that is what the grandparents she never got to meet did. You may know that Argentina has some pride in its soccer legacy, to put it mildly. But more importantly for me, there is a continuity, and great connection to the past, as well as the excitement of the coming weeks. Let the games begin!