World Cup Changes Course of Politics

A temporary truce is in effect in a civil war in the Ivory Coast. A presidential campaign has ground to a halt in Mexico. Iran has — at least for a moment — been liberated from its pariah status to be welcomed into the society of civilized nations. Massive numbers of half-crazed people throng together in city squares around the world in unity rather than anger.

No, these aren’t proposed plot lines for episodes on a modernized version of "The Twilight Plan." Rather, they are entirely typical occurrences associated with a quadrennial rite of summer anticipated with bated breath almost everywhere on the globe except the United States of America.

Yes, the World Cup of football — sorry, soccer that is — has begun in earnest.

It has always been a matter of bewilderment for people even in as sports-obsessed a nation as ours, that such an all-engrossing passion is incited in the breasts of otherwise seemingly well-adjusted individuals by this game in which one can’t even touch the ball with the hands.

The stories of frenzied fanatics rioting when things don’t go their way in foreign soccer stadiums are legion, and strike even the most dedicated American sports fan as nothing short of bizarre.

In fact, one of the most gruesome stories out of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq concerned those of soccer players and other athletes who were said to have been subjected to physical torture for not playing up to par.

Perhaps the most infamous World Cup incident that underpins this perception of the literal madness of soccer devotees was the 1994 murder of a Columbian player by a fan who was outraged over the player inadvertently putting the ball in his own goal in a loss to the U.S. team.

These things are, of course, examples of not merely abnormal, but truly sick conduct. Still, the fact remains that for some reason — however inexplicable — this sport exerts an almost narcotic-like effect on its adherents. And as with most things, this effect is either for good or ill.

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from all of this — even in the realm of politics.

To illustrate, imagine the plight of the Mexican presidential candidates who, because of the World Cup, can’t get an audience to listen to them expatiate on how to revive the economy, reduce crime, and (hopefully) how to make Mexicans want to stay home rather than trying to sneak across the American border.

There could be no better way to set oneself apart from the other candidates — as well as to connect with a vast cross-section of voters — than to say, for instance, that for the next month all of the political blather will be suspended. In its place will be fan forums to discuss the (presumably) more important issue of how the national side will fare in the biggest sports spectacle on earth.

But (as usual) there’s one little catch. That is, of course, that it cannot be seen as just some kind of gratuitous attempt to pander to voters in a transparent, condescending way.

Such a transgression was deliciously characterized when Al Gore tried to rap with prospective voters in Chicago about basketball at the height of the Michael Jordan dynasty years. After Jordan had just helped the Bulls wrap up a sixth NBA title in the ’90s by making three great plays down the stretch to beat the Utah Jazz, Gore sought to hob-nob with the Windy City fans by exclaiming: "How about that Michael Jackson!"

As was so laughably typical of Gore, the disconnect was palpable.

(He was later guilty of the same thing when he presented himself as a "fan" of a pop singer, and when pressed, couldn’t name a single song she had performed.)

So the indispensable stipulation for making such an approach work is simply that one has to mean it — even if that requires forcing oneself to become truly informed as to what’s happening in the heartland.

But the pay-off can be tremendous. Let’s face it, in the same way a ballplayer can become a life-long hero in the mind of an impressionable youngster by the simple act of signing an autograph (for which he’s not even being paid, and even with a genuine smile), or else be stigmatized as a creep for churlishly refusing, so too can politicians succeed in ingratiating themselves (or not) with prospective voters for whom likeability is as much (or more) as factor as positions on issues.

In fact, this type of person may just constitute the lion’s share of the vaunted "swing-voters."

One can idealistically insist that things shouldn’t be this way, but who can deny that this very thing was a major factor in the success of Ronald Reagan — or the downfall of many a lesser lot?

And this is not limited to sports, either.

It was repeated ad nauseum what a "tragedy" it was that while untold millions called in to participate in voting for the next "American Idol," voter turnout in primary elections was pitiably small. Now this (aside from being a very supercilious put-down of the average American) ignores another basic — and obvious — observation. Namely, that maybe the majority of those viewers find watching talented, likeable young people entertain them with music they enjoy to be far more pleasant than catering to politicians perceived as cynical glad-handers merely trying to use them to advance their careers.

And who among us deep down doesn’t even heartily agree with them?

In a similar vein, when it was once said that a last-place hockey team should be relocated because the people in its home city were not showing enough interest, one writer insightfully replied that the assertion was comical.

"Not supporting this team," he wrote, "has nothing to do with hockey interest, and everything to do with hockey taste."

In other words, they knew the real thing from a cheap imitation, and weren’t about to support the latter.

So the lesson that can be derived from the World Cup — aside from the difference between a goal kick and a corner kick — is simply this:

That people respond as much (or more) with their emotions as their intellects, and if someone can successfully appeal to those emotions, thereby getting them to listen, and then follow up with a message of genuinely good sense and substance, they have an excellent chance of winning those people over.

There’s nothing Machiavellian about this — as long as the effort to connect is heartfelt and sincere. If this means having to broaden one’s horizons in spite of a reflexive disinclination to do so, then this is not to be regarded as mere political calculation, but rather as the willingness to do whatever is necessary to succeed — much as an athlete may be willing to endure excruciating training in order to later reap the rewards.

So here’s a memo for public figures seeking to remain in good graces with their constituents:

Stay in touch with what’s important to everyday people — even if you have to hire a pop-culture adviser to do it.

And don’t forget: the midterm elections are in November, and the World Series is in October. So study those batting averages and ERAs. They may come in very handy.