The World Cup elicits so much passion from fans across the world that even though it happens every four years, the memories and impact on people often last a lifetime.
It was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. My dad was so proud of himself for setting up a little tube television with rabbit antennas outside in the backyard, shielding it from the sun with a Heineken-logo beach umbrella. We didn’t care about appearances because it was summer, it was hot, and my father, brother and I gathered around that screen as a bonding experience for the majority of the matches. It was a family event that was simple for us to enjoy and free from the broader complications of life.
I was young, and I didn’t expect to get into it so much, but I loved sports and was engrossed. The memory of Diego Maradona’s goals against England were paired with getting my bicycle stolen from our driveway because I had hurriedly left it there to watch the game on that little screen in the backyard. I loved that bike, but the blow was softened by huddling around that little screen yelling together in disbelief at the “Hand of God.”
Every subsequent tournament has created profound personal memories. There was Cameroon shocking and inspiring my family gathered around the dinner table in 1990. In 1994, it was a visit to Giants Stadium for a Saudi Arabia vs. Morocco group match, sitting in the “end zone” behind the goal and buying an overpriced T-shirt on the way out, which I think I still have somewhere. In 1998, I was an intern on Capitol Hill and I remember the visit by George Washington University police to my dorm-room door to tame a drunk houseguest as much as Zidane’s dominating performance in the final. The 2002 World Cup was my first with a “real job,” and I was living at home. My dad, brother and I woke up several early mornings to watch key matches in Japan and South Korea. When Ronaldihno’s free kick somehow both arrowed and floated in against England sometime after 4 a.m., we felt that it was all worth it. The memory that lasted more than Zidane’s head butt in 2006 was a German national team jersey my parents brought back for me from the semifinal they attended, which, of course, is still hanging in my closet.
In 2010, the personal meaning of the event evolved. I was into my second year at the NFL Players Association and the social and business impact of sports was more than a job, it became a part of my identity. Yes, watching Landon Donovan score against Algeria while hopping up and down uncontrollably in my office with a colleague was incredible and unforgettable stuff, but when we turned the television off, we had to go back and prepare for the reality of what was happening in our business.
That reality did not make the tournament less enjoyable to watch for me, but it did sharpen the focus for how truly messed up the business of sports can be. It brings so many people closer together and yet can divide and destroy the lives of so many others. By now, most of the world is aware of the corruption, challenges and harmful impact on people involved with staging this year’s event in Brazil and the allegations of corruption surrounding future World Cups. Yet, seemingly, the scale by which reactions are measured to knowledge of that information is to turn a blind eye to it at worst, or rail against it with little effect at best.
To be fair, sports journalism is often criticized and marginalized, but the reporting on the business and social impact on people of a World Cup has been remarkable. Taking on an institution with the size, power and money of FIFA is not easy and it raises the appropriate question: “What do we do about it and how do we do it?”
The “it” is to minimize and eliminate the corruption, hardship and pain inflicted on people and communities in the name of sport. Admittedly, those of us with that goal in mind have to find leverage somewhere because I – along with millions of others – have turned on the television as if it was 1986 and my bike was still in the driveway. We are willing to trade a loss of something important to us because sport seems to always matter that much more.
Perhaps the biggest development for this World Cup is the willingness of the athletes to take a stand about their own health and safety. The strong position of FIFPro on calling for a change in FIFA’s concussion protocols (or lack thereof) was a major development and a signal that the athletes involved in competition care deeply about what happens beyond the matches.
Personally, the World Cup thus far has been defined by the multiple three-word commentary e-mails between my father and I, who despite watching from halfway around the world, feels like he is right by my side. While the positive feelings of tradition and family resurface in a profound way, so too should our awareness of how sport can impact community and country. We have to be willing to ask ourselves what we can do to make it even better.
George Atallah is the assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Asssociation.
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