Man United. More than the name of the world's most popular team, it's a description of the state of the planet beginning on June 11. For one month in South Africa, as 32 national teams compete in the World Cup, vast portions of the globe's six billion people will be bound in an all-consuming passion for soccer. At its most basic level—a handful of kids kicking what passes for a ball around whatever open ground they find—the game is a source of joy, sometimes a means of escape. At its pinnacle it defines nations and dissolves differences. In short, this simplest of games unites humankind like nothing else.
This is an article from the May 24, 2010 issue
In a country that spent $600 million on four new stadiums for the 2010 African championship, the people's game remains mostly a matter of dirt pitches, netless goals and deep devotion.
Girls from the Loselling Middle Secondary School in the capital of Thimphu practice their penalty kicks. Football's popularity is on the rise in Bhutan, which stands 197th in the FIFA rankings but placed eighth in a 2006 index of the world's happiest countries.
Survivors of the January earthquake jockey amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince. Thirty-two members of the Haitian Football Federation were killed when the building in which they were meeting collapsed during the temblor.
High schoolers stage a kickabout in the shadow of Mt. Rotui on Moorea. The island nation, an "overseas collectivity" of France, failed in its bid to stage the 2011 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
Taking a break from their schoolwork, students in Léon play in front of a fresco depicting a scene from the Nicaraguan revolution. The Central American country has never played on soccer's biggest stage; its greatest f√∫tbol triumph was a 2--0 victory over Guatemala to qualify for the 2009 Gold Cup.
Though they must get by with makeshift equipment, the boys of Nairobi's Mathare slums exude the same footballing pride as their millionaire idols who'll be kicking it in South Africa next month.