Leading article: All the world's a pitch; the fixture is a friendly

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The Independent Online
Once the British knew of faraway places and distant cultures by trading with them, invading them, christianising them and colonising them. Now we play football with them. On the whole, football is the better way. The popular stereotypes of imperialism and war - of noble savages, backward races, cannibals, pygmies, nabobs, of heartless huns and inscrutable Japanese - are giving way to an equality of respect and a better understanding of the world. Football is the most powerful agent of modern internationalism.

This week's World Cup draw was one vast, popular geography lesson. Who knew or cared that Colombia had been turned into a land of refugees, its government powerless to stop right-wing paramilitaries wreaking revenge on Marxist guerrilla sympathisers, until England drew it in Group G on Thursday night? After all, the only reason most people could tell it apart from a space shuttle before Thursday, or know which continent it is in, was because Faustino Asprilla plays for Newcastle United.

The Scots, meanwhile, might feel that they know too much already about Brazil and Norway, a tribute to the educative power of global sporting prowess.

Who, though, could have expected the staid International Herald Tribune to print the entire draw on its front page under the headline, "Cup draw pairs US and Iran"? The idea of a nation peopled entirely by fundamentalist mullahs and women in deep purdah taking to the turf in studded boots, shorts and shirts covered in advertising logos is enough to give the popular imagination pause. As the Trib rather drily commented, "it is hard to imagine two countries with less love for each other than the United States and Iran" (except possibly Iran's neighbour Iraq). Perhaps the shared experience of the offside rule will bring greater mutual understanding.

Football has already started to dissolve the myth of Iran as a drear theocracy, as Robert Fisk reported in our pages earlier this week. Sure, Allah was given the credit for the two goals in seven minutes in Melbourne which secured Iran's place in the finals, but the nation - even some of its women - rejoiced in distinctly secular fashion when the victorious team was helicoptered in to Tehran's football stadium from the airport.

Football is the only true secular religion, providing a common culture for the world in the way Christendom and Latin once did for Europe. And Britain's integration into the global church - which it founded but has always seemed in danger of being left behind by - has been cemented in the past two years.

Since the Bosman ruling in 1995 which freed up the transfer market, and the injection into football of Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB millions, the number of foreign players in Premiership clubs has now hit 150. The running commentary of any top game is today a specialist task for qualified linguists. Led by Norwegians, threatening to repeat their Viking depredations on Scotland's World Cup hopes, and Australians, British football has become a global market.

Last weekend saw a vivid demonstration of this when Celtic and Dundee fielded 28 players, including substitutes, for the Scottish Coca Cola Cup, 14 of whom were foreigners.

Travel broadens the mind, even if most of the travelling is done by international football stars while the minds of lumpen supporters stay glued to the television. But the mind of the average football supporter, once a haven for basest racial prejudice and anti-foreigner sentiment, is now programmed to display adulation not just for the many black players in the game but to pronounce Karlheinz Riedle, the Liverpool striker.

As was reported this week, the proportion of black players far exceeds that in the population as a whole, as in American football, a great cultural engine of racial equality in the States. The black superstars here, such as Wright, Ince and Cole, are heroes for black and white alike.

Meanwhile foreigners are not merely respected but, as Cantona was, elevated to prophet status in the new religion. He has been followed by Zola (Chelsea, Italian), Bergkamp (Arsenal, Dutch) and Schmeichel (Manchester United, Danish).

Nor is this simply a market in players: several leading British teams are now managed by foreigners: the Dutch Ruud Gullit at Chelsea, the Swiss Christian Gross at Tottenham and the French Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, for example.

The World Cup has always been an interesting exercise in national identity for the United Kingdom, with team loyalties failing to match nation-state boundaries. The interest generated by Thursday's draw stands in stark contrast to yesterday's piece of internationalist symbolism at Waterloo station, where Robin Cook unveiled the logo for Britain's presidency of the European Union (although it is worth noting in passing the lack of English nationalist outrage at the way in which the EU is acting as a single country in the Kyoto climate talks in Japan).

As the World Cup progresses, the cause of internationalism is advanced. We will become interested in the history, geography and society of Cameroon (Group B), Paraguay (D), South Korea (E), Jamaica and Croatia (H). With the end of the Cold War, and the receding of the threat of a hot war of mass destruction, football is now the strongest incentive to find out about the rest of the world and seek to understand it.