The Real Truth: World Cup: Why Soccer Is So Popular Around the World

Cliff PotterCorrespondent IJuly 11, 2010

PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 10: Jorge Fucile of Uruguay is challenged by Marcell Jansen of Germany during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Third Place Play-off match between Uruguay and Germany at The Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on July 10, 2010 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

With ear-splitting horns, perhaps designed to keep the crowds more ruly, fans have gathered every four years since 1930 for the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup, apart from 1942 and 1946. Out of 18 tournaments, Brazil tops the list of winners with five.

The World Cup is the world's most widely viewed sporting event; an estimated 715.1 million people watched the final match of the 2006 World Cup held in Germany.  The current World Cup is being held in South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2010, and the 2014 World Cup will be held in Brazil. 

Why is this sporting event so popular?  For that matter, why has soccer never really taken off as a money sport in the United States, a country so full of immigrants who played the sport for much of their lives?

The rules of football were codified in England by the Football Association in 1863 and the name association football was coined to distinguish the game from the other forms of football played at the time, specifically rugby football. The term soccer originated in England, first appearing in the 1880s as an Oxford "-er" abbreviation of the word "association."

But the roots of football went back far earlier.

Who can say when the game began? Kicking is a fairly instinctive activity, so no doubt Stone Age man gave a rock or bone the occasional thump with his foot and then perhaps one day someone kicked it back and it all began there.

However, the first indications of an early formal form of football date back 3,000 years to Ancient China. A game played with a ball of animal skins stuffed with hair or feathers was kicked between poles some 10 metres high and was most likely used for military training. By 50AD, the game was named “tsu chu” (or “cuju”) and early records compare the round ball and square goal to Yin and Yang, the ancient symbols of harmony.

So, the game is older than most other sports.  It began in a country known for its export of culture and systems, and for its ownership of much of the world in the 1800s.  And it was a sport that was easily exportable.

But for all this, the real essence of the game of soccer was different in those days.

Today's game is loaded with money, fans, and talent, but often not the best on the right national teams.

And today's game shows that team beats talent most times.

So why the popularity?

First, it is easily played on any surface.  Unlike even baseball, where there are few money barriers, a single ball is all that is relevant. 

Second, advertising and financing are very big in most countries in the world.

Third, few countries have another viable national sport.  Sure, Switzerland could claim skiing.  But there are few countries who would not consider soccer close to if not at No. 1.

Fourth, look at the sport as an investment.  It is a good one if you get a team that goes far.

Fifth, talent is still among the best in the world.  And talent has such a huge pool to draw from.

So as the World Cup closes, we can ask ourselves a very big question.  Why is the United States not involved every year?

And we can supply the answer.  There are just too many sports competing for entertainment dollars in the United States.  Not that it cannot be done.  But at this level the cost is prohibitive until and unless the United States can get and keep competitive talent.


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