At dinner recently, one of my 5-year-old twins announced that he intended to learn Croatian.
This didn’t surprise me. Mealtimes at our house have become low-level colloquia on international affairs. Often I play resident expert as the children fire questions at me: What language do they speak in Korea? Is Barcelona a country? Does someone in our family live in Iran?
Honestly, my kids used to talk about superheroes. But two months ago, my husband bought them each a World Cup sticker album. Within a week, they were full-blown soccer fanatics. They now trot off to school wearing soccer shirts, beg to watch matches the moment they get home and fall asleep clutching their albums.
The other day, I reminded one of the boys that reciting the weights of players on the Japanese national team, including the substitutes, doesn’t qualify as conversation. (He now prefaces all World Cup trivia with, “I just want to remind you.”)
By now it’s an article of faith that interest in professional soccer is mushrooming in America — thanks largely to cable television and the Internet. The monthlong World Cup, which starts Thursday, will almost certainly be our largest-ever communal experience of the game.
But actually watching small Americans (albeit Americans in Paris, who call the game “football”) hatch into fanatics has made me realize that a World Cup obsession is different from, say, being nuts about the Yankees. That’s because the World Cup doesn’t just give you a sport; it also gives you the world.
It’s no coincidence that Americans are tuning in to global soccer just as we’ve been humbled by our sinking global status. It’s a way of seeing that — contrary to the national myth that we’re the best at everything — the United States is one country among many, and we can learn from others. Notably, the coach of America’s national team is German.
Indeed, while there are surely pockets of crazed nationalism, the World Cup seems to encourage respect for best practices. David Goldblatt, author of “Futebol Nation,” writes that many in Asia and Africa have long supported Brazil, either alongside or instead of their home countries. One of my sons was disappointed to realize that he’s technically American. “But America has never won a World Cup!” he said. Determined to back a winner, he’s supporting Brazil, too.
Of course, the World Cup view of the world isn’t entirely accurate. Only 32 countries participate. And national stereotypes abound. My kids are convinced that Uruguayans are mostly cheaters and even biters, because last year a Uruguayan playing for Liverpool was suspended for biting his opponent. They’re also fuzzy on some of the historical details we’ve discussed.
“What’s the name again of the team that invaded Mozambique?” one of the twins asked.
“Portugal,” I replied. “And it’s not a team, it’s a country.”
Anyway, the tournament isn’t just a history and geography lesson. It also gives kids a feeling of mastery. When one of the boys recently declared that “most people in Brazil are Brazilians,” it wasn’t just a profound statement of truth (“With that kind of material, you should be on television,” my husband told him). It was also his way of organizing life into a coherent story.
Though when I asked his brother why he liked the World Cup so much, he just said: “Because it’s the biggest thing in the world.” It connects a little boy to something gigantic and wonderful.
Crucially, children across the globe are having the same experience. They’re filling in the same sticker albums and scanning the same faces of players on the Greek and Nigerian teams. The 64 matches in Brazil — probably the biggest media event in world history, judging by the expected audience — will give them shared heroes and emotional sagas.
I’ve been pulled into this, too. When one of my sons said he was sad “because Samuel Eto’o is getting old,” I knew he meant the 33-year-old striker for Cameroon. I’ve learned that players typically run seven miles per match, yet have the ball only for about 50 seconds. I now know that the British call losing teams “no-hopers,” and that zlataner has come to mean “to triumph” or “to crush” in colloquial French, after the Swedish soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose playing style is influenced by taekwondo.
Mostly, I’ve come to appreciate soccer as self-help. Albert Camus, a goalie in his native Algeria, credited soccer for teaching him about morality. (Vladimir Nabokov and Pope John Paul II were goalies too, though lesser ones.)
The legendary Dutch player and coach Johan Cruyff once explained that if things were going badly on the field, it was helpful to do a few small things well — just some easy passes to a teammate near you — to get your confidence back. Mr. Cruyff, who stopped playing in 1984, is also famous for saying, “before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake,” and for telling an interviewer, “If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better.”
I don’t want to overstate soccer’s metaphorical value. Apparently, doing so is a symptom of adult soccer mania. “I now accept that football has no relevance to the Falklands conflict, the Rushdie affair, the Gulf War, childbirth, the ozone layer, the poll tax, etc., etc.,” Nick Hornby wrote in the introduction to his classic 1992 memoir “Fever Pitch.”
Anyway, I think the best part of the World Cup is the simple joy it gives people. When my more soccer-obsessed son bursts into breakfast asking, “Guess which is my third favorite team?” I can’t help but smile. Soccer may not explain the world, or even contain the world. But it makes the world a slightly happier place.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.