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World Cup: As We Cheer For Team USA, Remember How Small The Planet Really Is

The World Cup in Brazil is highlighting how much all nations have in common and are increasingly interdependent.

I find myself in need of a globe. I blame the World Cup for pointing out my faults in geography even though I’m more attuned to world affairs than most other Americans.

As I thought would happen, Americans continue to become big World Cup fans. The people of this nation as a whole aren’t huge soccer fans, but an event that brings the world together—exactly like the Olympics—makes them fans of a sport for at least a month. Americans like to compete and they like to win even though they know they’re decided underdogs.

Soccer (or fútbol in Latin America and football in the rest of the world) is a curiosity for most Americans because it’s the most popular sport on the planet by far but well down the list of Americans favorite team sports much, much below pro and college football, basketball, baseball and even hockey.

It’s creeping up the list, however, given the popularity that a strong contingent of Americans, immigrant Americans and foreign nationals living here have for European club soccer, especially the Premier League in England. American football and the fact that the best soccer players in the world compete in Europe rather than in the US limits how far the sport can grow here.

We’re greedy people, us Yanks. We want to see the best play right here.

Our culture is not unlike the Borg in Star Trek. It assimilates other cultures but takes out its best points. When it comes to sports in the rest of the world, that’s the World Cup. And if non-soccer fans are going to follow the sport it needs the identity an American team that’s competitive like it is now.

Anything that lets America see more of the world is a good thing. It’s always been one of our biggest failures as a nation that we generally don’t look outside our borders unless it’s necessary and that usually involves conflict.

I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t identify all of the 32 World Cup nations on a map if a blank one was in front of me.

It prompted me to think back to my childhood and my first experiences of reading in grade school. Like so many of my contemporaries, my parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia in the mid-1960s, and they were kept in my room.

Those books were my world along with a globe my parents gave me. As a young boy, I didn’t read comic books. I shut my eyes, spun the globe and put my finger on it. Whatever nation it touched, I looked it up in my treasured encyclopedias. I even wrote (pretty good) book reports on what I learned. I loved the adventure of envisioning myself immersed in other cultures and languages and seeing how others lived around the world.

Growing up in the later stages of the Vietnam War and in 1973 witnessing the impact of the Arab oil embargo on America taught me at an early age of the importance of looking for reasons of why what happens outside our borders how it directly impacts our lives here.

The taking of American hostages in Iran in 1979 cemented that belief and prompted my earning a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas in 1985.

I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and worked towards that end. I worked for a magazine called The Washington Report On Middle East Affairs in 1990 to prepare myself to go abroad.

I walked by the Iraqi embassy in DC every day on my way to work and put in a request with the Iraqi ambassador to get a visa to work in Bagdad. He liked me and gave me one even though at the time they didn’t allow American reporters to be based in the country on a permanent basis. That was June 1990, and I made arrangements to travel to Iraq in August 1990. I knew that was the country to be and where Saddam Hussein was likely to seek territory and result in American intervention.

The problem was a few days before I arrived in Iraq, Hussein invaded Kuwait and with it my visa was invalidated. Once the US entered the conflict, the possibility of living in any place other than an expensive hotel ended as well. Instead, I spent time in Egypt and Jordan working as a freelance reporter for my magazine and news organizations during the first Gulf War.

The subsequent responsibility of caring for my widowed mother ultimately ended that career path and put me on another but that hasn’t dampened my interest in the Middle East. I watched in horror that Al Qaeda could catch us off guard in targeting the World Trade Center when they’ve already tried and failed before.

I worked at the time for The Los Angeles Times and one of my beats was the Ontario International Airport. I remember having lunch with a group of airport and city officials on the first day the airport reopened and told them how this attack would eventually lead to going into Iraq because we would run out of people to fight.

I said then how it would be a mistake.

Unfortunately, I was right along with others who knew the dynamics of that Iraq that only replacing a dictator would lessen a deterrent against Iran and foster a civil war. Thankfully, we’re not planning on sending back in ground troops in what already has been a disaster for America by invading in the first place.

All of which brings me back to the World Cup currently enthralling the planet’s populace from picturesque Brazil. I went through the list and remembered them all in my head. Five teams from Africa, five teams from Asia and Oceania, 12 teams from Europe and 10 teams from North, Central and South America.

The European and Asia teams are easy for the most part. I can have trouble identifying which Scandinavian country is which and my selection of nations in the former Yugoslavia can be off slightly.

My biggest challenge, however, was in the Southern Hemisphere. I know the nations in Northern Africa that are culturally part of the Middle East, but please don’t ask me to identify where Ghana, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast are exactly on a map. I even confused Nigeria with Congo. Not good, people.

Maybe the World Cup has become the 2014 version of the World Book Encyclopedia for me. I hope it’s true for a lot of other Americans as well in a world that grows more and more interdependent. I know our geography makes us isolated and that’s difficult to overcome. Other continents, unlike us, feature many nations close to their borders.

My travels have taught me how small this world is; how we all breathe the same air; how we all look at the same sky; and how we all have the same hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families.

So even if you don’t like soccer or football or fútbol, partaking even in a little of the World Cup celebration is good for the soul. It brings the world together and shows us how much we all really do have in common.

It’s like having our very own globe spinning in each of our bedrooms.

And, oh yeah, Go Team USA!

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