BERLIN—In the German city of Leipzig on Friday, the rulers of international soccer will randomly draw the names of 32 countries to set up the eight groups of four teams each that will make up the opening rounds of next summer's World Cup soccer championships.
The task almost defines mundane, but more than a billion people worldwide will be watching, rapt. With six months before the games in Germany, Friday's draw will mark the beginning of the finals—and the beginning of the tribalism that's more attached to soccer than to any other sport.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German member of the European Parliament, used an old cliche to sum up his feelings: "Some people think that soccer is a matter of life or death, but we all know it's much more important than that."
Two hundred and five teams began pursuing the 2006 cup two years ago. Now, in a ceremony featuring supermodel Heidi Klum at 8:30 p.m. local time, the remaining 32 national teams will learn who their opponents will be in the opening rounds of next year's championship play.
Fans see more than just a game.
"Soccer isn't simply sport to most of the world, it's culture, it's how we define ourselves as nations and define our standing in the world," Lambsdorff explained, saying that national teams have styles that reflect their people (Brazil celebrates, France dances, the English are gung-ho, the Germans are precise). "On one level, it is a substitute for war. It is often just as serious."
Which would seem to be a vast overstatement if not for the history of the tournament. Take Germany in 1954. The country was a mess. The defeat of the Third Reich left the nation split between a Soviet-controlled east and a newly democratic west. The economy was pathetic. In many cities, residents still were scrambling to find housing among the ruins of the war. Monuments had vanished, and nobody knew whether to trust the new institutions that were being created.
Dietrich Schulze-Marmeling, the author of "History of the World Cup," said: "Before the World Cup, the ugly truth was that many Germans weren't so sure they were better off without Adolf Hitler. They didn't want to talk about the mistakes of the past, and they didn't see much of a future."
Then the new nation's soccer team left for Switzerland. When it won the tournament against all expectations, it forged a new nation, giving an identity to people who were struggling to find one. It's been turned into legend here, the Miracle of Bern.
"It took the politicians a while to see it, but all of a sudden the German people were thinking maybe democracy wasn't so bad, if they could be world champions without a dictator," Schulze-Marmeling said. "It was the reintroduction of Germany to the world."
Not that it's always sweetness and light. Past matches between England and Argentina have been close to re-enactments of the Falklands War. At a 1988 Netherlands and Germany soccer game (not a World Cup match), Dutch fans chanted "Give us back our bikes" throughout the game, a reference to what Nazi soldiers had stolen during World War II.
Sam Hardy, spokesman for the British political-research center Chatham House, said the World Cup always had a couple of examples of political subtext. In the last World Cup, in 2002, Senegal beat France, its former colonizer, setting off wild celebrations.
"First, it was a football accomplishment. France at the time were the best team on Earth," he said. "But it was also a statement, on the world's largest stage, that the shackles were truly shed, that Senegal were equals, and no longer in the shadow of their colonizer."
Other past draws have matched East and West Germany (East won) and the United States against Iran (Iran won). Winning countries claim year-long economic boosts.
For Friday's draw, people wonder about the power of soccer diplomacy and potential games of the U.S. versus France, or Serbia and Montenegro versus Croatia.
"The World Cup does draw out nationalist feelings, makes people proud of their home," Freiburg University sociologist Klaus Theweleit said. "But there's a paradox at work as well, because as we identify with our teams, we also share the experience with the enemies. Football can divide us, but it also has a unique power to unite us. It's a good tribalism."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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