This year's World Cup should motivate us to fight racism wherever it may lurk

When Colombian pop star Shakira dropped in on Phoenix a couple of months back to wag her finger at Sherriff Joe and our vindictive state legislators for their latest broadsides against illegal immigrants, it was not as random as it may have seemed.

She has become something of an ambassador of diversity, highlighted by her cover of "Waka Waka," the official song of the 2010 World Cup. The original gist of the tune, created in Cameroon in the 1980s, was to satirize African military leaders who were beholden to white colonial oppressors, while celebrating the can-do spirit of the African rank-and-file who fought in World War II. In fact, "waka waka" could be creatively translated to an American cultural parallel along the lines of, "Just do it," or perhaps, "Git 'er done." Only this time, the song urges, do it for Africa.

I've been watching so much Copa Mundial de Fútbol that Shakira's "Waka Waka" now plays more or less continuously in my head, and several times a day, I succumb to the overwhelming urge to sing it aloud. I've watched the matches almost exclusively on Univision, since I prefer the totally amped Latino announcers to the stodgy British commentators on whitey TV. I can only catch about half of their breathless Spanish, but regardless, they make a 0-0 tie feel like a barnburner.

Maybe it was the United States making an impressive run—or, should I say, managing to avoid an embarrassing failure, for once. Despite a series of controversial calls that included two game-winning goals being disallowed, the Americans made it out of group play and into the second round with stirring comebacks and a stunning, last-minute goal against Algeria in a must-win game. With everything on the line, and only a couple of minutes of injury time left in which to seize it, the sparkling white-clad Americans blazed down the field, led by U.S. captain and star player Landon Donovan. After dishing for a shot that was rejected by the desperate Algerian goalie, Donovan cleaned up the ricochet and erased years of stigma with the winning goal. It was an inspiring display of pure desire, but almost as impressive to me was the interview that he delivered in fluent Spanish afterward. Obviously moved by the squad's pluck, the melodramatic Univision announcers waxed poetic on such concepts as espíritu, lucha and la casa de los valientes.

In the media coverage, I saw a photo of a U.S. fan holding up a huge sign that read, "Brave-hearted Yanks, you have one chance, just one chance, to win here and tell our enemies that they may take our goals, but they'll never take our freedom." Really? Is it all that? Memo to egomaniacal U.S. fans blinded by the hubris of empire: We have whacked enough Africans over the centuries that you may want to think twice before brandishing warmongering signs on their home turf.

But that's the World Cup for you. Only in this context can the world's dominant superpower, the one nation that commandeers more of the world's resources than the entire continent of Africa, play itself off as the underdog.

This year's World Cup in South Africa marks the first time it has ever been held on African soil, and the theme of diversity and tolerance is part of a concerted effort to rid the event of the racism that has plagued it in the past. One of the Univision announcers, José Luís Chilavert, was involved in one of the more infamous episodes while playing for Paraguay in the 2002 Copa, when he spat in the face of an opponent who walked up to him after a match and mocked his indigenous Guaraní ancestry. In Europe, several nations share our anguish and paranoia over illegal immigration, and lately, some European national teams have become a little too diverse for many of their fans.

Shakira could find a reason to wag a finger at somebody in virtually every nation on Earth, but I'd like to think that the biggest hook for this year's Copa is this theme of diversity and tolerance. Chilavert, as his home team of Paraguay lined up for the final penalty kick that would dramatically seal a victory, dropped all pretense of professionalism and exhorted his compañeros with cries of, "Vamos, Paraguay!" and, "Para la sangre Guaraní!" The spirit of the World Cup is to channel this passion, this competitive flame, away from fields of battle and the violence of racism and onto the football pitch instead, where pride and desire for conquest are not exclusive of respect for the heritage and humanity of one's opponent.

It takes a lot of work to overcome racism, to call it out wherever it lurks, and show that it will not be tolerated in our communities or our society. I can only say waka waka.

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