This is an article that appeared in Vanity Fair recently promoting, I suppose, the World Cup.

Look, can we get this straight, right from the get-go, from the first whistle: It's football, OK? Football. Not soccer. It's never been soccer. Nobody but midwestern cougars calls it soccer. Soccer is a late-19th-century English-university slang-word that's an abbreviation of "association," as in "association football," to distinguish it from "Rugby football," which, incidentally. Is the origin of the game Americans call football, first played by the Ivy League toff boys in 1867. In French, it's le football. In Germany, it's Futball. In Spanish, it's futbol. Though weirdly in Italian it's calcio, from the Latin for "heel." You may, if you really insist, call it "footie." It also universally, and without contradiction or cultural snobbery, answers to the appellation "the Beautiful Game."

The football World Cup is, by a country mile, a long hop, an eagle, a furlong, and the whole nine yards, the greatest sporting event in the world, ever. It's been estimated that more than 715 million people watched the cup final in 2006. By the way, that's almost 10 times the number that watched the Super Bowl that year. Two hundred and four nations tried to qualify for this year's World Cup (for 32 spots). To put that into perspective there are only 192 in the United Nations.

The English claim to have invented football, though the Mayans played something similar with their hips, and the losers got their heads chopped off. Apparently they managed to invent the ball but somehow missed wheel. The Chinese also claim to have discovered a Neolithic football pitch. But it was the English who established the rules, in that energetic century when they made the rules for almost every game, from bridge to billiards, including some that already belonged to other people, like polo. Football spread through the empire, and the beyond, with a spectacular alacrity. To this day, one of the first hearts-and-minds operations that British soldiers abroad do is to play a game of impromptu photo-op footie with local lads, using helmets and yashmaks for goals.

It seems that football took to the world pitch at about the same time as the modern independent nation state. After a flag, a national anthem, and a press release decrying Yankee imperialism, the next thing newly minted nations do is build a stadium and come with a national grudge match. As a result, most countries see their football team as an expression of national solidarity. The British, with a contrarian savoir faire, use it as an excuse to dissolve the union and play as four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It isn't music or movies or pizza that is the lingua franca of the global. It's the Beautiful Game. Everyone has kicked a ball in the company of other ball kickers. It isn't the most exciting, or the most sophisticated. But there is something about opposing teams of 11 men that speaks to humanity in away that transcends the game. It is around the world a new vocation of workingmen's aspirations and identities. Everyone can play well enough to enjoy the kick-about and also to understand and criticize those who play it supremely. It's a team game in which individuals star. It has been a metaphor for both free enterprise and socialism.

Despite the huge wages of the players, the vast amounts paid for clubs, the commercial milking of teams and fans, and the global TV audience, football remains a blue-collar sport, rooted in locality and common values. For all their money, footballers are expected to mirror the dream lives of the fans. Anyone who is seen to have cultural or social pretensions is given short rift. It's all right to have a Bentley, but not a Rothko. An English player for Chelsea who was known to read The Guardian (a liberal, arty newspaper) was relentlessly pilloried as a poof for the rest of his career.

Footballers rarely come from the middle classes. Their heartlands are the slums and shantytowns, the favelas and the mean backstreets. To sit in the stadium on a Saturday afternoon in an industrial town anywhere in the world is to feel the great energy, humor, and anger of the engine room. The marketing and manufacturing of football and footballers grow increasingly cynical but still there is a purity at the heart of the game,. direct link from the boys on the beach to the stars in the stadium, in a way that no other sport nor music nor the movies can claim.

The very first international match was played between Scotland and England in 1872. It was a nil-nil draw. (The draw is often said to be the reason that Americans haven't ever really gotten behind the football: they don't understand a game where no one wins.) The first World Cup was played in Uruguay in 1930, to mark the country's centennial. The hosts won, beating their neighbors, Argentina, 4 to 2. They couldn't agree on whose ball to use, so they used the Argentinean ball for the first half and the Uruguayan for the second. Incidentally, the US played in the first-ever World Cup game, beating Belgium, 3 to 0, and gaining its highest-ever finis: third. There have been 18 tournaments - 1942 and 1946 were canceled, owing to more pressing concerns - and only seven countries have ever won. The British didn't take part in the cup until 1950. They had resigned from the International Football Association in 10920 because they couldn't face a game against Germany after the horror of the Great War - thou one of the mostr games of football ever played was between the trenches during the impromptu Christmas Truce of 1915, Tommies versu Fritzes.

The Germans are still England's favorite enemy. The English beat them in 1966 final and never let them or anyone else forget. They still play the theme from The Great Escape and sing, to the tune of "Camptown Races," "Two World Wars, and one World Cup, England, England." The Germans, though, have won the Wolrd Cup three times ('54, '74, '90) and have been in more finals than anyone else. They;re very good at it. Football has done more to rehabilitate Germany with the rest of Europe than either Mercedes-Benz or Kraftwerk. But still, they're the team everyone wants to stuff. The Dutch chant, "Give us our bikes back," (Retreating Germans stole bicycles in Holland at the end of W.W. II.) The famous Hungarian team of the 50s, the Magnificent Magyars, who never lost between 1950 and 1954, played a final of intense cathartic importance. The Germans injured the Hungarian star Ferenc Puskas in their first-rounnd match, then stole a victory in the final with Puskas playing at half-speed. Two years later, the Hungarian uprising began. Some point to this bitter loss as a catalyst. El Salvador and Honduras were pushed to war over a football game. Colombian referees and players are occasionally assassinated following poor performances.

Countries seem to play with their national characteristics. They become stereotypical. The Germans are disciplined, ruthless , and relentless, always with a huge,m impenetrable goalkeeper. The Italians are vicious, vocal, and cheat. In 1934, the Fascist World Cup, they sent three Spanish players off injured. It was an Italian who provoked the Algerian-French Zinedine Zidane to a retaliatory foul in the 2006 final by telling him his sister was a prostitute. That is typically Italian. The Argentinians, who are half Italian, play much the same way. The French are terribly inconsistent: one moment glorious and attractive, the next petulant and confused. Portugal and Spain are Europe's underachievers.

In America, "soccer" is still considered a children's game in many respects, so they're in the process of growing up. African football is marvelously exciting. No African country has ever gotten past the quarter-finals, but they play with an eager, individualistic enthusiasm, often with any apparent defensive strategy. In South Africa, while Rugby and cricket were played by the white ascendancy, deafening football has always been the game of the township.

Brazil, the most successful footballing nation on earth, plays mesmerizing, skillful, and emotional football. They also took part the most famous final - perhaps the most famous game - ever played. In 1950, in the huge newly opened Maracana Stadium, in Rio,m the Saint Peter's of the Beautiful Game, roughly 210,000 people - still the record for attendance at a sporting event - came to watch Brazil beat Uruguay. Brazil was such an immensely long favorite that they had already cast their gold winners' medals and composed a victory anthem. Uruguay's coach, Juan Lopez, gave his team a locker-room pep talk, saying they should concentrate on defense. As he left, the captain, Obdulio Varela, huddled his fellow players and instructed them to forget what they'd just been told. They must play to win. He famously said, "Muchachos, los de afuera son de palo. Que comience la funcion," which translates roughly as "Outsiders don't play. Let the show begin," meaning, don't be intimidated by the crowd, the press, the speculation. Brazil went one up. Varela put the ball on the center spot and yelled, "Now it's time tow in." Uruguay equalized against the run of play.

And then, 12 minutes before time was up, they scored again. The stadium fell silent. It is called the greatest silence ever heard. Jules Rimet, then the president of FIFA, international football's ruling body, said, "The silence was ,morbid, sometimes too difficult to bear." It was broken by the final whistle. Some Brazilian fans committed suicide, leaping from the upper tiers of their new stadium. Rimet was left on his own on the pitch to hand the cup to the Uruguayans. The Brazilian-team members were ostracized for the rest of their lives. Some retired immediately. Most were never called to play for their country again. There is a lingering pain among Brazilians, still in a state of shock for the loss.

A Scottish football manger, Bill Shankly, said, "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I can assure it is much, much more important than that." This summer, perhaps a billion people will be watching the World Cup in South Africa, the first time it will be held on the continent. Every single one of them will know, really, everybody on and off the pitch, plays.

Let the show begin.