With the U.S. national soccer team having earned a berth in next summer's 2014 World Cup tournament in Brazil, the media will almost certainly inundate us with soccer as a metaphor for understanding global issues.
But does soccer really "explain the world," as Franklin Foer suggested in his 2004 best seller? Can it really "stop a war," as one overplayed TV commercial touted during the 2006 World Cup?
Journalists and academics strive to make epic connections between "The Beautiful Game" and geopolitics. Yet in doing so, they ignore soccer's human influence. In virtually every country, the sport is widely accessible and brings diverse individuals together to speak a common language.
Take Scotland, for example. The two Glasgow powerhouses, Catholic-supported Celtic, and Protestant-backed Rangers, play two or three times a year in matches that paralyze the entire country (think Yankees and Mets, except with all of the U.S. taking sides, and some religious overtones thrown in.)
During these contests, Glasgow's entire police force is on duty, and the army on alert to deter mass confrontations. The fans, many injured in post-game riots, seem to overlook that their team rosters are stacked with foreign stars who have no spiritual stake in the internecine affair. Often, these players are of the opposite faith than what their jerseys represent.
Yet on days when the Scottish national team takes the field, these same factions band together as the Blue Army, and take to the streets with a fervor last seen in Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Religious strife is absent. When Scotland plays in international tournaments, the Blue Army sings, dances and drinks in celebration, win, lose or draw.
A similar empathy surfaced during the 2002 World Cup. Mexican goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez arrived in Nuremberg for his team's first match against Iran. Once off the airplane, German officials informed him of his father's death back home. Never leaving the airport, he took a return flight to Mexico City for the wake and funeral.
Then Sanchez flew back to Germany, arriving at the stadium just hours before kickoff. Following introductions, the teams took their positions. Iranian goalkeeper Ebrahim Merzapour then emerged from his goalmouth with a bouquet of flowers, running the length of the field to present it in sympathy.
Grasping the gesture unfolding before them, 75,000 fans stood and cheered their approval. A teary Sanchez embraced his opposite number, while the rest of the Mexican team saluted Merzapour on his return to the Iranian goal.
You don't have to be a star to appreciate such displays. Many experts argue that soccer is the most egalitarian team sport, as one neither has to be a physical freak nor come from a privileged background to compete at a high level. International star players look so much like anyone else walking down the street that you can't tell them apart from a sandlot troupe.
I count myself a former member of the latter, having officially left the game long ago. As a college freshman walk-on, scrimmages of superior play against the varsity still left me buried on the junior squad. The Oedipal chorus warned us of youth's excessive pride, but I wasn't listening, and soon quit in disgust.
Later returning to amateur leagues, I discovered a different world.
From stops on six teams in four states and two foreign countries, I played with global expatriates of all ages. Tough matches were followed by camaraderie in local pubs. By the time bum knees forced me to hang up my cleats at age 37, I had made friends with, among others, a farmer from Nebraska, a banker from Denmark, a grocer from China, a priest from Ethiopia and a doctor from Alabama.
People, not politics, make the game. And ruin it, sometimes.
Soccer doesn't get a free pass. There have been senseless incidents such as the 1994 drug cartel murder of Columbian team captain Andres Escobar, who scored on his own team during its World Cup loss to the Americans. In 2006, the entire Italian soccer federation was mired in a gambling and game-fixing scandal that threatened the fall of Parliament.
So, fans and players have had to take a hard look at what has become of a once simple game. Those who remain loyal seek joy, not consequence.
A soccer ball, when spinning toward the goal, looks eerily like our orbiting Earth rotating on its axis. In the lead in to next summer's World Cup, talking heads and literati will draw parallels to global affairs or great battlegrounds.
For the time being, though, I'll postpone "explaining the world." But next year I'll dig out my ball and give it a few kicks around the closest local field, where thankfully no blood will be shed.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @TellyHalkias.