The Olympics were revived with the highest ideals of both athletic achievement and world peace.
Pierre de Coubertin, the French academic and historian, is largely credited as being the father of the modern Olympics. He saw athletics as an opportunity to promote understanding between cultures and reduce the danger of war.
The ancient Olympic games in Greece had a literal truce: wars paused to allow for safe travel to the games and sportsmanship secured it at the event itself. But de Coubertin thought that a worldwide sporting event could provide more than a temporary repose, allowing that understanding to seep into us, promoting friendly competition and de-emphasizing aggression and warfare.
The World Cup, currently underway in Brazil, offers all that and more.
Soccer is the worlds sport, and maybe the only pitch on which the United States and Ghana are equal adversaries. The Olympics are grand and historic, but Euro-centric and dominated by rich, powerful nations and Nordic ones in the winter.
Relatively poor countries like Uruguay have won the World Cup in past years, and already in this tournament, Ivory Coast has defeated Japan and hometeam Brazil is odds-on favorite to win it all.
Soccer is a sport that does not require an Olympic-sized budget; only a dozen athletes, an inexpensive ball and a place to play. But its more than just a sphere and some grass. Its an expression of the national identity of each country.
The fantastic 2010 book by Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, rolls out the argument in at novel length. But it is noticeable to the casual fan, too.
The culture of The Netherlands is perfectly reflected by their team. The Dutch are proudly tolerant, risky and artistic, and their team is a mirror image. They are talented, individualistic, creative and get crushed by Germany.
Brazil is the most obvious one. The land of music and Carnaval, beaches and caipirinhas plays an almost lyrical brand of the beautiful game, working their samba rhythms into their runs and passes.
The Germans are regimented and well-organized. England plays rough and ugly. Italy dramatically overacts and Algeria plays not to lose.
New U.S. coach Jurgen Klismann, a German national star in his playing days, said when he was hired that the national team has never captured the American imagination because it was never linked to the national identity. He sees America as proud, determined, multicultural and aggressive, so he set out to make the team in that image. Whether it will be successful or not remains to be seen, but the initial return (a 2-1 win over Ghana and record-breaking television ratings) is a hopeful one.
But this is just a game, a win just a win, a loss not a fatal one. We are proud of our places. And were competitive as hell. But isnt it great to compete in something where no one dies?
Of course, the world is not a peaceful place. Supreme brutality between Islamic sects have bloodied Iraq with civil war, the future of the country hanging by a thread. Sudan remains a horrendously violent place, with peace negotiations no closer to being complete. A suicide bombing in Nigeria targeted an outdoor World Cup viewing party, killing 14 and injuring at least 26. And Russia did not learn any lessons from their stint as host of the Winter Olympics, invading Crimea just days after the closing ceremonies.
And yes, FIFA is a corrupt, morally bankrupt organization. And yes, Brazil could have used a couple hundred million dollars to provide food, clothing and shelter to their poorest residents dying on the streets by the hundreds instead of using it to build soccer stadiums.
We like to insult sport by calling it a distraction, but thats exactly what it is. And in times like these, isnt it a welcome one?
There are a lot of terrors out there. But the more capital emotional and literal that the world puts into sport and games, the better off the world will be.
So wear some red, white and blue this month and see if you can spot a little bit of yourself in the American defense Sunday against Portugal.
Think on foreign countries and study the faces of their players: the Belgians, the Algerians, the Japanese. Learn to mock them in their own languages. Learn some Brazilian geography. Marvel at the athletic prowess on display, laugh at the smiles and costumes in the crowd.
There is nothing better than the world coming together, even over something as silly as a soccer ball.