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Better soccer field than battlefield

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Hundreds of millions of people throughout the world watched France and Brazil meet in Paris in the World Cup final.

To the extent that they have noticed it, most Americans may have thought of the World Cup in terms of hooligan violence. It seems to justify George Orwell's view of all sports."Sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will," he wrote in 1945, because it is bound up with the rise of nationalism - "the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."

Certainly, in the past weeks, as the tournament has unfolded, whole nations have been raised to heights of joy or plunged into depths of despair. Mighty considerations of prestige have been at stake.

Before France played its semifinal match against Croatia on Wednesday, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said consolingly that it didn't matter if the French lost, since they had already achieved so much. After France did win, reaching its first World Cup final ever, President Jacques Chirac said it was one of the proudest days in the country's history.

As for the losing team, the Croatian captain, Igor Stimac, was equally proud that although his team lost to France, it had at least beaten Germany.

Not all the demonstrations of national pride have been so uplifting. This World Cup has seen ugly episodes, thanks notably to the English soccer hooligans and their even more alarming German coun-ter-parts.

"If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world today," Orwell wrote, "you could hardly do it better than by staging a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Russians and Poles."

It's true that the red-and-white-checker "sahovnica" adorning the Croatian soccer players' shirts is part of the heraldry that President Franjo Tudjman borrowed from the pro-Nazi wartime regime of Ante Pavelic. And some Bosnian Croats celebrated the victory over Germany by beating up Muslims.

But that's only part of the story. When the United States and Iran met in this year's World Cup, the soccer field became not a war zone but a demilitarized zone. After Iran won, 2-1, there was celebrating in Tehran, but not because the United States had fallen.

"I think it is important after 20 years of situations to show that the things said about Iranians are not true," said Ahmadreza Abedzadeh, Iran's goalkeeper. "We were courageous, and we played fair."

The fact that Americans don't participate fully in the joys and miseries of the World Cup is an interesting demonstration of the way that, whether or not they are politically isolationist, they are more culturally insular than they realize.

Even if they haven't learned to love soccer, Americans understand that, no matter what Orwell said, sport can also have a beneficial and healing effect. Jesse Owens' triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olym-pics was one uplifting moment for America, and Jackie Robinson's first appearance for the Brooklyn Dodgers was another.

Likewise, one of the better moments in recent South African history came when President Nelson Mandela greeted the members of the national rugby team, almost all of them white.

We have just seen another example, when Makhaya Ntini, the first black player in the South African cricket team, was embraced by his white teammates.

It is better that the Croats should show they are a great nation on the tennis court or soccer field than on the battlefield. And, in fact, there are many worse ways to express national unity and pride than by winning the World Cup.