World of Wonder; Pele in 1970. Maradona in '86. Zidane in '98. Every Four Years, One World Cup Player Makes History. Henry A. Kissinger-Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Former Secretary of State, Soccer Fan-Shares His Golden Moments before This Year's June 9 Kickoff

By Kissinger, Henry A. | Newsweek International, June 12, 2006 | Go to article overview

World of Wonder; Pele in 1970. Maradona in '86. Zidane in '98. Every Four Years, One World Cup Player Makes History. Henry A. Kissinger-Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Former Secretary of State, Soccer Fan-Shares His Golden Moments before This Year's June 9 Kickoff


Kissinger, Henry A., Newsweek International


Byline: Henry A. Kissinger

On June 9, host country Germany will inaugurate a month of football frenzy by playing Costa Rica in the opening match of the 2006 soccer World Cup. For two weeks there will be three matches a day, as the thirty-two survivors of a global competition involving more than a hundred teams over a period of three years are whittled down to sixteen, In eight groups of four, each team plays the others in its group. The top two teams of each group advance to a sudden-death round also lasting two weeks and culminating in the final on luiy 9 in Berlin. Billions around the world will be glued to their television sets at all hours of the day and night; millions will find ways to interrupt their work schedules to watch at least some of the sixty-four matches.

National morale in winners and losers will be affected, particularly as the competition nears its end.

I will be one of those viewers and have arranged my schedule to accommodate its necessities. Most fans would find it difficult to describe what it is about soccer that so enthralls them. They would probably identify it with their passionate adherence to their favorite club team--a passion that, in America, is matched only by the most fanatical adherents of football teams.

I grew up in Fuerth, a little town in southern Germany, where soccer had the status of football in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Though playing with local amateurs, its team inexplicably won the German championship three times during my boyhood. I have not lived in Germany for many more decades than I care to admit, yet I still follow the fortunes of that team which, in the age of high salary professionalism, has been relegated to the second division. Fuerth periodically seems on the verge of rising to the top league but, as this year, always manages to fall just short--guaranteeing the mixture of misery and hope that is the lot of the soccer addict.

The emotions evoked by club teams are, to those inspired by the national team, like a raging stream compared to Niagara Falls. Club teams play at least once a week, between August and June. National teams play only a half-dozen games a year and, for the highest prize, only once every four years. There is no margin for error or for deferred passions, Victors are heroes; losers are treated as if they have inflicted a personal insult. A Colombian player, who had contributed to the elimination of his team in the 1998 Cup by an own goal, was assassinated when he returned home.

Manipulating a ball by foot along a 100-meter long field into an opposing goal requires skills analogous to ballet. Especially teams that concentrate on individual skills--like the Brazilians--astonish with their virtuosity and abandon. On the other hand, they sometimes are so infatuated by their individual artistry that they forget to score goals and are overcome

by more single-minded, strategically-oriented teams.

Only the rarest players--like Maradona for Argentina, dribbling past four or five English players in the 1986 World Cup, are able to score by essentially solitary efforts. Typically, games are won by team efforts. The seductive quality of soccer resides in the almost intellectual focus with which the best teams move the ball down the field to solve the riddle of how, with each side moving at high speed, to get a ball past eleven opponents, one of whom--the goalie--is permitted to use his hands to intercept the ball. This turns the game into a kind of geometry in finding uncovered open spaces from which to launch an unimpeded shot on the goal. The great field generals like Zidane of France or Beckenbauer of Germany had the uncanny skill of distributing the ball among their teammates in a manner that seemed unimaginable in the abstract and self-evident in execution. Soccer at its highest level is a game of complicated simplicity.

Over the decades, the game has become increasingly strategic: When I first became a fan, the ten field players were distributed as five forwards, three midfield players, and two defenders. …

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World of Wonder; Pele in 1970. Maradona in '86. Zidane in '98. Every Four Years, One World Cup Player Makes History. Henry A. Kissinger-Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Former Secretary of State, Soccer Fan-Shares His Golden Moments before This Year's June 9 Kickoff
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