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World Cup Fever: How Sport Can Promote Understanding and Tolerance

With the start of the football World Cup, the world's attention has turned to sport. While most people focus on the games, the events have significance that go far beyond the realm of international competition and entertainment. History shows that sport - and football in particular - has an extraordinary ability to promote tolerance and understanding.

The ability of natural talent to overcome hurdles of racism and lack of social opportunity has long been celebrated. Many athletes - from Jesse Owens to Pele to Tiger Woods - have become true role models, helping to promote tolerance and even spur broader social changes.

But extraordinary individual talent is only part of the story. As UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has noted "sport has long displayed an inspiring ability to overcome national, political, ethnic and cultural differences … It can be especially powerful in instilling in children and young people universal values such as respect and tolerance." Sport is a common topic of conversation for people in all places, at all levels and in all roles.

It is football that plays an unparalleled role in promoting understanding - in schoolyards, parks and stadiums around the world. No sport is remotely as global in its participation and following. Football is a common language that has helped people around the world to better understand each other.

It has a unique place in international relations. Consider the following:

The rules of the game are transparent, fair and explicitly non-violent. FIFA has more members than the United Nations. Virtually everyone wants to see the superpower, Brazil, in action. The World Cup Final has more viewers and listeners than any other event or programme.

This is not to gloss over the race problems in football - and sport more generally; they are well known. We should also remember that football is only a game. Football is limited in its ability to solve problems with deeper historical and societal roots.

But nor should we underestimate football's extraordinary global reach, power and influence.

2002 was also the first time that a World Cup has been co-hosted by two countries - Japan and Korea. It was the largest project they have worked on together. It was particularly symbolic given the troubled history between the two countries. The co-hosted tournament was certainly a triumph for tolerance and understanding.

This year's World Cup is building on the progress. FIFA and UNICEF have a joint campaign under the banner "Unite for Children, Unite for Peace" with the aim to demonstrate how football can promote messages of non-violence, tolerance and peace. The official charity of the World Cup is SOS Children's Villages who have the objective to raise funds to give orphans and abandoned children a new home.

An estimated one billion people will watch the 2006 final on television - and the cumulative audience over the month is likely to top 30 billion viewers. The World Cup hosts, players and international community should not miss the opportunity to tap into this. Through channeling media interest and spurring private conversations, there can be few more effective ways towards promoting international tolerance and understanding.

For more on this, please see the Op Ed by Julius Court in The Daily Yomiuri, Japan’s largest English-language daily (17 June 2006).(http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/features/culture/20060617TDY13001.htm)