We begin with 32 teams. That may seem like a lot, but that's what we got from the 203 who attempted to qualify.
They played in every corner of the world, from Iceland to Mauritius. The ball was always the same, regardless of political system, wealth, weather or skin colour. There were 11 men per side, two nets, one referee and white lines marked with chalk.
For most of us, it began in early childhood. The posts were replaced with shirts or jackets, but the ball was still there. At first, it was probably a tennis ball or something made of waterproof purple rubber, but as we grew up, the ball became leather and prodly proclaimed it was "FIFA size 5." It may have been Jamaica, Brazil or faraway China, and there was sun, wind, rain and snow. There were fights, tears and smiles but it was always fun. "Foul!" was heard in every language imaginable. This was a different world, removed from poverty, politics and education. Everyone came in equal, but skill and desire elevated the best.
As time went on, this movement brought down barriers. National animosity was the first to go as fans respected individual skill regardless of the player's passport. Pele was a great performer. The fact he was Brazilian did not stop the whole world from falling in love.
Race followed soon after. There are still examples of blind ignorance, but generally, the game became truly global. The final barrier is gender--but even that one is slowly eroding away.
Inevitably, the streets and alleys grew up, but a select few continued playing and never left their childhood behind. All the rest of us could do is cheer them on, fully understanding how lucky they were to never grow old.
They're fortunate; most of us had to let it go. Something got in the way, be it school, work or physical limitations.
We don't play anymore, but we live and die by the results. We're always mesmerized by the perfect pitch, the streaming glare of the stadium lights and the rhythmic roar of the crowd. Some go too far--they lose control and they riot, loot and destroy. However, regardless of how it's shown, the passion is always the same.
We all have a team that's ours for life. The workhorse Germans, the flamboyant Brazilians and the maligned English are great examples. We identify with the team that suits us best, usually the team made up our countrymen who share our dispositions.
Every four years, the World Cup decides the world's best. We began with 32 nations, but there were already countless games; countless tears and smiles just to get this far.
This is the only true world championship and soccer is the only true world game. For a month, we stop and watch the one thing that unites the entire globe. It's a black and white ball rolling on a perfect green pitch, just like it rolls in the alleys, in the sand and on the streets.
It seems so perfect, and for a month, we can't help but smile.