Reflecting on the World Cup and the Emotional Significance of Sports

Reflecting on the World Cup and the Emotional Significance of Sports

"Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11" explores how sports and athletes helped to unite the country following the 2001 attacks. Photo by Jin Lee, 9/11 Memorial.

Recently, I found myself outside a jam-packed bar chanting “Ospina! Ospina!” – the last name of the Colombian national soccer team’s goalkeeper – joining an emphatic chorus of World Cup fans. I was on my way home after work, delayed when I became swept up in the dramatic final moments of the “knockout round” match. The mood on the street was powerful, combining a celebration of athleticism with a celebration of cultural pride. It was impossible to walk past without feeling the magnetism of hopeful, positive energy generated by this vast cross-section of celebrants.

The emotional effects of sports are multi-pronged. They course through every society and country, and can be unifying, particularly in times of crisis and upheaval. As ESPN staff writer Tommy Tomlinson observed, “This is the blessing of sports. They help you remember when you want to remember, and they help you forget when you need to forget. They heal us an inning at a time, quarter after quarter, play by play.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, sports helped to shape a national response to the terrorist attacks extending far beyond America’s stadiums and playing fields. That phenomenon is explored in “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11,” a new special exhibition at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

Included near the exhibition’s start is a roster for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team match, scheduled to take place on the evening of 9/11 in Columbus, Ohio. Set to face Japan in the Nike U.S. Women’s Cup, the roster had been prepared for distribution to the media. It included names familiar to American fans such as Heather Mitts, Abby Wombach and then-captain Julie Foudy. Fate intervened, however, and the match was canceled that afternoon, along with the rest of the tournament, mirroring the shock that gripped the nation.

Recalling the decision to leave suspend play that evening, Foudy said, “We felt it wouldn’t be right. Even being the National Team, we felt that the focus should be on getting with family and starting the rebuilding, mentally and emotionally. It was that raw.”

Most major sporting events were canceled through the weekend following 9/11, marking the longest period of major league sports stoppage in American history. Instead of playing, athletes dedicated themselves to visiting with first responders, 9/11 survivors and families of victims. Some ventured to Ground Zero to distribute supplies, serve food and do whatever they could to raise the spirits of those working the around-the-clock relief effort.

When sports resumed, stadiums became communal settings for memorialization and demonstrations of national unity. The resumption of ritual provided comfort and solace for the bereaved, a welcomed distraction for anxious Americans, and the promise of a comeback that we, as a collective society, would make it to the other side of this monumental tragedy.

Today, we can revisit this unprecedented time in sports history and modern American history, through “Comeback Season,” and find inspiration in the stories within it. As Philadelphia Distance Run Director Mark Stewart wrote in a letter to the parents of a World Trade Center victim registered to participate in the city’s half marathon scheduled for Sept. 16, 2001, “We hope that the image of athletes of many races, religious beliefs and nationalities standing together at the start of the Race will make a statement which counters the horror of the week.”

On the cusp of the 2018 World Cup Final, poised to electrify and unify sports fans around the world, these words maintain relevancy as we reflect on 9/11 and take stock of the violence that has rocked our separate but interconnected communities and global well-being since then. 

By Alexandra Drakakis, Associate Curator, 9/11 Memorial Museum