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Welcome to World Cup Week

Introducing our latest special report.
(Photo: shine2010/Flickr)

(Photo: shine2010/Flickr)

A couple of months ago, in response to the occupation of Crimea, two U.S. senators wrote to a powerful international federation in hopes of creating sanctions against Russia, citing “a brazen disrespect for fundamental principles ... and international law." A few days later, Russian officials fired back, filing a similar letter to the same organization, calling for the U.S. to be sanctioned for "military aggression against several sovereign states” and the “numerous cases of human rights violation all over the world revealed by E. Snowden."

The organization? FIFA. The sanction? A ban from the 2014 World Cup.

The 2014 World Cup will be the most uniting cultural event in the history of human civilization.

Alas, no sanctions were enacted. And Russia will be in Brazil, playing with a team that seems in keeping with the nation’s political tides, as the roster—in a tournament where 65 percent of the players play professionally in countries outside their own—consists entirely of Russia-based pros. Except, the team is coached by 68-year-old Italian who was previously the manager of England.

The U.S. will be there, too, led by a German manager who won a World Cup while playing for Germany and who will be coaching an American team with five German-born players, a guy from Norway, and another one from Iceland. Worried that the U.S. isn’t American enough? You can always root for Mexico. And if you’d prefer a different team with an American-born player and an American-born coach, why not throw your support behind Iran?

You get the point. Soccer, as you may have heard, is the most popular sport in the world. The 2014 World Cup will be the most uniting cultural event in the history of human civilization. It’s a game, but it’s also a game played and watched and consumed by multiple billions of people. “When a game matters to billions of people it ceases to be just a game,” Simon Kuper writes in Football Against the Enemy. “Soccer is never just soccer: it helps make wars and revolutions, and it fascinates mafias and dictators.”

Kuper wrote some form of those words 20 years ago, and the world’s changed since then. (For example: We’re writing about soccer on the Internet, and doing it for a national American magazine.) Saying that the sport still “makes wars and revolutions” might not be quite so accurate anymore, but the game, in this country and in the rest of the world, has only continued to grow. “The game remains too good a way of understanding the world to discard,” Kuper writes in the introduction to Soccer Against the Enemy, the 2010 American edition of his first book. “Soccer matters as much today as when I made the journey that became this book, but now it matters in different ways.”

So, all this week, we’ll be looking at some of those different ways. We hope to show how the sport gets tangled up in the different political, social, and cultural issues across the world—but it might be better to say that we just want to see how soccer reflects some of the important issues of 2014. You can find all the exhaustive tactical breakdowns and the lists of players you've never heard of but will definitely start hearing about elsewhere. Instead, we’ll be writing about the game’s role in the development of Iran, the most politically volatile matches in the tournament's history, and why, at the same time, this is both the most important tournament ever played and the one with the least amount of meaning. We'll also be talking to Kuper himself about many of those things and more.

The games kick off on Thursday, with Croatia playing Brazil, and we'll be posting multiple stories a day through the end of the week. You'll learn something—we promise.