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How we envy the World Cup! – by Kofi Annan

I wrote this article in 2006, ahead of the World Cup In Germany. I was still the secretary general and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the world’s road map to halve poverty and reach many important development goals, were just 6 years old. This month, I am once again looking forward to enjoying the World Cup. The joyous sense of anticipation reminded me of this article and I think its message holds as much today as it did 12 years ago. If only we could get as excited about performing well as united human family as we do about the World Cup, much could be gained. The Sustainable Development Goals, the MDGs successors, provide solid benchmarks to measure how we, as a people, fare in this endeavor. Let’s get as ambitious about them as we do about the World Cup. 

New York, June 2006 – You may wonder what a secretary general of the United Nations is doing writing about football. But in fact, the World Cup makes us at the United Nations green with envy. As the pinnacle of the only truly global game, played in every country by every race and religion, it is one of the few phenomena as universal as the United Nations.

You could even say it’s more universal. FIFA has 207 members; we have only 191.

But there are far better reasons to be envious. First, the World Cup is an event in which everybody knows where their team stands, and what it did to get there. They know who scored and how and in what minute of the game; they know who missed the open goal; they know who saved the penalty.

I wish we had more of that sort of competition in the family of nations. Countries openly vying for the best standing in the table of respect for human rights, and trying to outdo one another in child survival rates or enrolment in secondary education. States parading their performance for all the world to see. Governments being held accountable for what actions led them to that result.

Second, the World Cup is an event that everybody on the planet loves talking about, dissecting what their team did right, and what it could have done differently – not to mention the other side’s team.

People sitting in cafés anywhere from Buenos Aires to Beijing debate the finer points of games endlessly, revealing an intimate knowledge not only of their own national teams but of many of the others too, expressing themselves on the subject with as much clarity as passion. Normally tongue-tied teenagers suddenly become eloquent, confident, and dazzlingly analytical experts.

I wish we had more of that sort of conversation in the world at large. Citizens consumed by the topic of how their country could do better on the Human Development Index, or in reducing the amount of carbon emissions or the number of new HIV infections.

Third, the World Cup is an event that takes place on a level playing field, where every country has a chance to participate on equal terms. Only two commodities matter in this game: talent and teamwork.

I wish we had more levelers like that in the global arena. Free and fair exchanges without the interference of subsidies, barriers or tariffs. Every country getting a real chance to field its strengths on the world stage.

Fourth, the World Cup is an event that illustrates the benefits of cross- pollination between peoples and countries. More and more national teams now welcome coaches from other countries, who bring new ways of thinking and playing.

In the process, they often become heroes in their adopted countries – helping to open hearts and broaden minds.

I wish it were equally plain for all to see that human migration in general can create triple gains – for migrants, for their countries of origin and for the societies that receive them. That migrants not only build better lives for themselves and their families, but are also agents of development – economic, social and cultural – in the countries they go and work in, and in the homelands they inspire through newly won ideas and know-how when they return.

For any country, playing in the World Cup is a matter of profound national pride. For countries qualifying for the first time, such as my native Ghana, it is a badge of honor. For those who are doing so after years of adversity, such as Angola, it provides a sense of national renewal. And for those who are currently riven by conflict, like Ivory Coast, but whose World Cup team is a unique and powerful symbol of national unity, it inspires nothing less than the hope of national rebirth.

Which brings me to what is perhaps most enviable of all for us at the United Nations: The World Cup is an event in which we actually see goals being reached.

I’m not talking only about the goals that a country scores; I also mean the most important goal of all – being there, being part of the family of nations and peoples, celebrating our common humanity.

I’ll try to remember that when Ghana plays Italy in Hannover on June 12. Of course, I can’t promise I’ll succeed.

This article was first published in the New York Times, June 2006.