Stacy Thacker, AP
In this July 1, 2014, file photo, fans cheer for the United States against Belgium during a Brazil 2014 World Cup viewing party at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off next week in Russia. It is, by far, the grandest sporting event in the world. Teams from 204 countries competed across six continents, for three years, playing in 855 matches, to be one of 31 qualifying teams (plus the host country of Russia) to play. Global gross domestic product will likely drop temporarily as an expected viewing audience of 3.2 billion people watches and celebrates the most popular sporting competition in the world.

Sadly, the United States did not qualify for the first time in 32 years. In what can only be described as a devastating blow to U.S. soccer, the red, white and blue lost 2-1 in the final qualifying match to Trinidad and Tobago (population less than half the state of Utah). Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica will represent North America in the heralded tournament, and the Yanks will stay home.

Because of U.S. soccer’s failure, Utahns will have little local connection to the competition. In 2014, Real Salt Lake players Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman made the squad. This year, soccer fans around the Beehive State will have to adopt a country. I will be cheering for “El Tri,” also known as Mexico, because I adore the spirit of the Mexican people and their talented play on the pitch.

The event kicks off June 14 and concludes a month later. During this time, an estimated 40 percent of the world’s population will watch games. There’s really no sporting event that can hold a candle to the World Cup. Consider these viewing audience statistics from 2014, the year the last World Cup was held:

  • World Cup Final — 1 billion
  • Super Bowl — 112 million
  • Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony — 28 million
  • World Series (Game 7) — 24 million
  • NBA Finals (Game 5) — 18 million

For years, economists have debated the impact of World Cup competition on productivity as people interrupt sleep patterns, come to work late (or tired), call in sick, close up shop and otherwise waste time at work while participating in betting pools, checking scores or gabbing about the players, the games and the referees.

There are many stories about crazy economic events that happen in World Cup years. Italian autoworkers went on a two-hour strike a half-hour before a match because they were told they couldn’t watch it at work.

In fanatical soccer countries like Brazil and Argentina, government agencies, schools, banks and many businesses shut down during games so people can party in the streets. Even hospitals slow down as elective surgeries are postponed.

My favorite is a claim by a South Korean retailer. When the World Cup was hosted there, he said monthly sales for adult diapers increased by 168 percent. Apparently, fans, many of whom watched the games at outdoor plazas, didn’t want to miss a minute of the action.

To those who are not soccer fans, I invite you to join the international community and give “the beautiful game” a chance. Remember, it’s not about endless scoring, like you see in the NBA Finals. That’s too predictable. It is about a sport where the action never stops (no timeouts, no television ads and very few breaks in play), physical endurance rules, skill and tactics dominate and players from the entire world bring their unique styles to the game.

15 comments on this story

The Germans bring exquisite passing and precision, the Japanese bring dexterity and discipline and the Brazilians bring passion and personality. This year, Iceland, with a population of 350,000, became the smallest country in the world to qualify. Panama also qualified for the first time, prompting its president in a tweet to declare a national holiday.

It’s regrettable that the U.S. failed to qualify, but there is still much to love in a World Cup summer. I encourage people to give their workaday world a skip and tune in for the matches. Don’t tell my academic dean, but I will be watching.