orty per cent of employed people will take time off from their jobs over the next month to watch football matches being relayed from Korea and Japan. Some big businesses are taking the pragmatic step of allowing employees free time to view the World Cup games, which take place at odd hours of the morning, for our purposes. Other individuals are devising strategies not to appear at the office during the crucial games.
Football fans are being advised by one guide to the tournament, sponsored by Gary Lineker, to be careful about faking a family bereavement to miss work. "The last thing you want is your 'deceased' mother phoning work midway through the first half asking to speak to you." Well, yes. And remember, mocking is catching.
I don't expect to be among those glued to the TV set from Friday 31 May, as I am not much of a sports spectator; yet I much admire the World Cup tournament, and I agree with its own self-branding as "the greatest show on earth".
Man is seldom more innocuously employed than when following twenty-two blokes kicking a small ball on a green space. Football brings to young men the thrill of competition, the feeling of brotherhood, the pride of patriotism, the sense of achievement which comes with skill and discipline, the appreciation of talent and the learned philosophical experience that while some will win, some will lose, and joy and disappointment are both part of a lived life. A football tournament illustrates the Book of Ecclesiastes' aphorism about strength and skill being subject to the vagaries of uncertainty: "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong... but time and chance happeneth to them all."
Politicians and other panjandrums speak of "globalisation" and "the international community", but football is the true globalisation and the true international community. Not one man in ten, stopped in the street, could tell you the name of the Prime Minister of Italy, the Foreign Minister of Germany, or three current South American leaders. But every second young man could tell you about Zinedine Zidane, the Real Madrid star whose first name means, in Arabic, "defender of the faith"; or Gabriel Bastistuta, the "angel Gabriel" who is the new Maradona of Argentina; or El Hadji Diouf, the Senegalese striker who dyes his close-cropped hair blond and scores goals by the dozen.
Most people have no interest in foreigners: this is proved every time there is a serious accident abroad — a train crash in Germany, a mass disaster in India. It is mentioned on the news, and once there is no one from home involved, there is no
further concern. Most people — in all countries — are basically insular. But football overcomes this basic insularity and turns youths who could scarcely place Brussels or Frankfurt on the map into experts on the position, location, climate, history, religion, languages and geophysical condition of Paraguay, China or Saudi Arabia. Many of the great footballing stars have played for teams in other countries, and are better-travelled than the average diplomat. Football is deeply educational, and opens young men's minds to other cultures.
Football, indeed, is deeply catholic: a defining aspect of Catholic Christianity is "universality" — Unam, Sanctam, Catholicam et Apostolicam means a universalist church. This does not rule out natural patriotism and love of motherland, but it provides another dimension of internationalism.
If football is a substitute for war, as some have said, then the substitute is better than the real thing. If boyish high spirits sometimes spill over into hooliganism, it is still a lesser evil than terrorism or warfare.
The Romans provided games to take people's minds off the problems of politics. And why not? Football is in many respects superior to politics as a focus for men's energies and one of the best vehicles for the forging of an international community.
Prs"inea )f:c(1)P 1:; are t III; ee strong showing of Sinn Fein in the recent Irish election. A young voter emails me from Galway: "I find it very hard to stomach Adams preaching about how he and his followers are going to change the Republic for the good.
"I seem to recall that for several decades Sinn Fein/IRA did their level best to undermine our state, killed our guardians, robbed banks for their own profit, and killed our fellow citizens.
"In addition to this, the aid they have and continue to give to ETA and the FARC clearly has no place in a party that aspires to play a part in a democracy. Can't see such a thing going down well anywhere else in the world."
Still, there is always room for repentence and improvement, and once inside the democratic system, there will be plenty of opportunity for change.