You never know what will spark a conversation.
In this case, it was the shirt of Germany’s national soccer team I was wearing while waiting for my 9-year-old daughter to emerge from school last week.
A fellow parent, who I recognized but had never spoken with, asked if I was a fan. I learned she and her family are from Kaiserslautern in southwest Germany and had moved to Clark County two years ago.
I explained that my family has roots near Dresden, in eastern Germany. We agreed that Die Mannschaft, as Germany’s team is known, has a great chance to win its fifth World Cup this summer in Russia.
It was simply small talk. Yet it was a conversation that made the world feel smaller thanks to the planet’s biggest and best sporting event.
It’s a fair question. With the United States having failed to qualify, why should Americans care about the World Cup?
The easy answer is to watch two of the best players the game has ever known, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi. With the World Cup happening every four years, it’s likely their final shots at the legacy-defining championship.
But Ronaldo and Messi weren’t mentioned when my other daughter, age 12, sat next to me as I watched Morocco and Iran play in the tournament’s third game on Friday.
“Doesn’t Iran hate us?” she asked.
“Well,” I answered, “I’m sure if you met any of those Iranian fans in the stadium, they would be really nice.
“Just because their government doesn’t like our government doesn’t mean that country’s people are bad.”
Sports can make the world feel more connected (C’mon man, that’s hardly a groundbreaking view).
It’s also a view that can feel idealistic and naive.
Sports aren’t going to end the carnage in Syria or Yemen, raise the living standard in sub-Saharan Africa or heal the political divisions here in America.
The organizations that put on the World Cup and the Olympics have been, and likely still are, horribly corrupt. United States prosecutors blew the lid off rampant corruption in FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, when a sprawling global investigation was made public in 2015.
The International Olympic Committee is no better. There are many examples of well-connected individuals getting rich on expensive stadium projects, which go on to burden their cities with debt or are left to crumble. One report estimates $30 billion of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics’ budget was lost to graft.
Doping and other forms of cheating have sullied the reputations of many international sports — cycling and track and field in particular.
We’re right to acknowledge the ugliness that can surround sports.
But we’re wrong to ignore the beauty they can bring.
After my daughter asked about Iran, we looked up pictures of the capital Tehran on my phone. We briefly explored the history of Persian culture, one of the world’s oldest, though she was more enticed by Persian cats.
Then we moved on to Morocco. She learned why French is one of two predominant languages there. We marvelled at the old-world architecture of Marrakech.
So, back to the earlier question — why care about a World Cup without the United States?
My answer is ‘why not?’
It’s easy to become preoccupied with our American stature, politics and lifestyle. But there’s a much larger world out there that welcomes our attention, energy and empathy.
And even if you’re not a soccer fan, the World Cup offers a chance to feel a little closer to an outside world that can seem strange and scary when you isolate yourself from it.
In the end, nearly everyone has the same goals — health, happiness and hope that the score will be in their team’s favor.