RIO DE JANEIRO – Not Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Not Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism or assorted animisms. The world’s biggest monotheistic religion is football.

It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, where you come from, your political ideology, your educational background, even your primary religion; football belongs to Everyman. North Americans, Australians and South Africans may call it soccer: but the name of the “beautiful game” (copyright Pele) is football, as it was invented in England in the 1860s (it’s also football in France, fussball in Germany, and futebol in Brazil).

Even as the ultimate postmodern religion, football remains tribal – but with a twist; there’s always room for a second favorite outside your own tribe, and the world’s unanimous second favorite happens to be Brazil. The Supreme Deity of football – a sort of Shiva with boots – used to go by the name Pele, a Brazilian, and then by the name Maradona, an Argentine. Now it dances, Shiva-style, to the name Ronaldinho, another Brazilian, fast as a cheetah, unpredictable as a cat, lethal as a missile, always sporting his trademark toothy grin.

Football is primal, ritual, hypnotic. It’s Greek tragedy. It’s moralist drama (but never moralistic). And at its World Cup apex, it’s what global performance art is all about; the whole planet – literally – having a ball, a hedonist frenzy from Islamic-controlled Mogadishu to the deserts of Xinjiang, from out-of-water-and-electricity Baghdad to the Andean peaks.

At least 5 billion people will watch the World Cup, which kicks off in Germany on Friday, on television. The 2002 finals in Korea-Japan were watched by 213 countries, in more than 41,000 hours of programming. Media research company Initiative Futures stressed that this would be the most-watched TV event ever. Even September 11, 2001, or “shock and awe” on Iraq pale before a World Cup final.

Seventeen basic and straight-to-the-point rules with universal reach and springing myriad wells of hope; no wonder the World Cup is a respite from realpolitik. It’s not even a mirror image. Two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – Russia and China – are absent from these finals and one of them, the United States, is a football midget.

In the football world, the Security Council is more like Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, France and England. The sole superpower is Brazil. Unlike the one in New York, this Security Council is sanctions-averse.

It’s unlikely that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will show up on Monday in Nuremberg – of all places – to judge for himself the Iranian team’s performance in their first match, thus sparing unending trouble to German diplomacy (exit neo-Nazis planning to rally in Nuremberg supporting Iran).

But Ahmadinejad’s public relations benefits would be immense, adding to the fact that he recently allowed chador-clad Shi’ite women to watch football live in Iran with no constraints. Al-Qaeda will not attack; Osama bin Laden, when in London in 1994, was an Arsenal fan.

Exalted jihadi masses – and Saudi Arabia supporters – won’t cry out loud for the actual elimination of an apostate or infidel adversary, be it the US or English national teams. During the World Cup, defensive jihad will only mean teams struggling to protect themselves from the firepower of Brazil’s “magical quartet” – Kaka, Adriano, Ronaldo and world No. 1 Ronaldinho.

When Argentina beat England in a quarter-final in 1986, that was seen in Buenos Aires as revenge for the Falklands (or Malvinas) war. This year, the Ivory Coast’s Elephants have pledged national unity through football to forget their own civil war. Angola, another first-time African team to qualify for the finals, has already done it. But Togo still prefers to engage in voodoo.

Italians want to do well to forget their biggest football-related scandal in decades. “To win is to restore [our] dignity,” said Gigi Riva, who was in the 1970 finals. Japan – coached by Brazilian legend Zico – wants to prove that the future of football, as well as the world economy, is also in Asia.

The World Cup could have its own alter-globalization motto – “another world is possible.” Football geopolitics means fun and drama are democratically redistributed, not only to Group of Eight-based multinationals, but under a different, more equitable and certainly more entertaining world order; under this parallel order, Italy lost a game to North Korea in 1966 and the US a game to Iran in 1998.

So the whole world would rather forget the Washington agenda, the Washington consensus, the “war on terror,” hooliganism, racist slurs, neo-Nazis on the rampage, Iran’s “nuclear threat.” The Bundestag in Berlin may have considered deploying the German army during some sensitive matches; more likely an army of 40,000 prostitutes from behind the former Iron Curtain will join the more than 400,000 sex workers already deployed around Germany.

Hundreds of millions in football-crazy Asia will wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning to watch dozens of matches. According to Smart-Trust, 4.5 million photos will be snapped during the World Cup, and this just with camera-equipped mobile phones.

Everyone will want to watch Brazil. Every team – as FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association, the world football governing body) head Sepp Blatter stated – will want to beat Brazil. A global macro-poll in 107 countries by the Internet community Hattrick has ruled: it’s Brazil against the rest of the world. How come? World Cup (1970) winner Tostao says that the secret of why Brazil is so good (five-time winner) is “the imaginative unconscious of Brazilian football, transmitted down from one generation to the next.”

The corporate war

No illusions. As far as being there, live, in the thick of the action, this is a game for the rich. The 15 official World Cup sponsors, or FIFA “partners,” received one in every six tickets – 490,000, or 16% of the total. And these tickets still had to be paid for. Each competing nation, on the other hand, received only 8% of the tickets for each match they play. The remaining places go to global media, VIPs and security.

One in every nine of the 3.1 million tickets is issued to a VIP, costing as much as US$3,000 each. They are considered tickets to the general public even though only corporations or wealthy individuals may afford them. Only 36.2% of the total number of tickets were sold to the public by means of an Internet lottery.

How to dress up for the party is a matter of war. Puma, founded in the tiny, northern Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach in 1948, will equip the national teams of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Angola, the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Paraguay and Tunisia. Adidas, founded in 1949 in the same town, will equip the host nation, Argentina, France, Spain, Japan and Trinidad-Tobago.

US corporate giant and relative newcomer Nike, founded in 1971, will equip Brazil, the US, Australia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Serbia-Montenegro, South Korea and Ukraine. And Umbro, founded in 1920 in the United Kingdom, will equip only England and Sweden.

Nike has unleashed a massive Brazilian-themed campaign – “Joga Bonito” (“play beautifully,” in Portuguese) – which has invaded virtually every inch of public space from Beijing and Bangkok to Bahrain and Buenos Aires. But then comes an unpredictable suicide bombing; Ronaldo’s boots – the Mercurial Vapor, weighing less than 200 grams, scientifically engineered in the US and hand-made by artisans in Lombardy, near Milan – provoked blisters in the former, three-time FIFA World Player of the Year. Nike had to issue a mea culpa.

Puma is smaller than Adidas but has been making a killing in the stock market. Pele won the 1962 World Cup wearing Puma. Adidas – an official FIFA partner and maker of the official World Cup ball – wants to win this year’s cup outright (preferably with Germany) even if it is sponsoring only six teams compared with Puma’s 12. Puma for its part is investing heavily everywhere in Africa and betting long-term on being the winner at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa – aside from configuring itself as the coolest among the major sports brands.

Amid all the carnival, it’s easy to forget that the beautiful game is all about 22 men kicking a ball. Sialkot, in northeastern Pakistan, is the world capital of the football. It takes a Pakistani – or an Afghan – kid three hours to stitch a ball. At a rhythm of three balls a day, he’s paid 60 cents each.

Again, this is the global economy in action – at least 2,000 workshops, sheds and back yards stuffed with members of the global proletariat, their owners subcontractors for Nike or Adidas. The average salaries in Sialkot are about $1,000 a year, about twice the Pakistani average. Thus the poor Pakistani kid’s work enables the rich Chelsea fan in London to buy an “affordable” ball (for about $130) and enables Nike or Adidas to deploy massive global campaigns featuring Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Michael Ballack and a millionaire cast of footballers-as-pop-superstars.

The future of the football is literally in Asia – namely China, where wages may be even lower than in Pakistan, working hours even longer and the workplaces even more Dickensian. Machine-made-in-China footballs are churned out 10 times as fast as in Pakistan – and they are of course much cheaper. Meanwhile, Thai producers are attacking from above with their high-tech glued footballs. The official 2006 World Cup football is not a hand-stitched Adidas made in Pakistan; it’s a glued concoction made in Thailand.

The thrill of the chase

German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk defines football as “an experimental anthropological scheme” revolving around hunting. As he tries to reach “with a ballistic object, a target which tries to protect itself by any means,” man relieves the primal, ritual feeling of the hunter.

Not for Brazilians. For them, it’s much more complicated; it’s the thrill of the chase, plus ritualized war, plus having fun, plus ritual as an art form. It all has to do with Brazil’s racial and cultural cauldron, the “all-encompassing jelly” sung by the 1960s Tropicalist wave.

In some selected latitudes, football is a great popular narrative – Argentina, England, Italy, Spain – but nowhere more than in Brazil. Football as a narrative may be extremely subjective. But the difference is that the Brazilian narrative is always gay – almost like a dream. In the “imaginative unconscious” evoked by Tostao, sublime moments read like poetry.

Like midfielder Didi being responsible for 48 long-range and short-range assists in the 1958 World Cup final, all of them perfect (Brazil won against Sweden, 5-2), thus his nickname “The Black Napoleon,” coined by the French; or what the English consistently vote as the greatest goal of all time (right back Carlos Alberto at the 1970 World Cup final; Brazil won against Italy, 4-1).

Arguably the best place to watch the World Cup – apart from live in Germany – is Brazil. The whole nation is entirely draped in a green-and-yellow frenzy. In everyone’s hearts it’s all about the magical number 6 – a sixth World Cup victory. For millions it’s already a given – even if the minor matter of winning seven matches still has to be addressed.

And it has to be a victory in style – by playing futebol arte (art football). Brazilians don’t care about their fourth World Cup victory in the US in 1994; too dull. They prefer to celebrate the sublime 1982 team – which lost to Italy 3-2 before reaching the finals – but is still widely ranked as the best football team ever, apart from the Pele-led 1970 world champions.

UN-affiliated Ronaldo – even though referred to as El Gordo (The Fat One) by Spanish media – remains the most popular sportsman in the world. If by any chance the Brazilian national coach – a wise fellow who reads and applies Sun Tzu’s Art of War – would leave Ronaldo out of the team, sponsor Nike would eat him alive. A Spanish bank has draped huge walls with some of the Brazilian superstars – Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Robinho, Roberto Carlos, Cafu and Kaka – appearing from nothing like colossal ghosts (the current Brazilian team is the most expensive national squad ever: 450 million euros – $575 million – and counting). But most fans dismiss with a shrug the official, Nike-sponsored team jersey selling for about $85 – more than half the monthly minimum salary; they prefer pirate copies.

Only in Brazil there’s at least $1 billion in World Cup-related promotion floating around. Ronaldinho alone is the star of no fewer than 12 publicity campaigns – selling deodorant, vegetable jelly, soft drinks, Gatorade, chewing gum, video games, mobile phones, ice cream and the Cartoon Network. Francesco Totti, in Italy, is the star of five promotional campaigns. That’s football as the biggest and most profitable show on Earth.

Ronaldinho geopolitics

If football is war, Brazil has the ultimate lethal weapon – Ronaldinho, the human equivalent of the bunker buster. Since 2002, he has won absolutely everything in sight; world champion, South American champion, Confederations Cup champion, Spanish champion (twice, with Barcelona), European champion, FIFA World Player of the Year (twice in a row). According to an MSN poll, 70% of Spaniards would die to have him on their national team.

Hindus at the Nakuleswar Temple in Kalighat, Kolkata, have performed a ceremony so Ronaldinho and his teammates reach the magical number 6 in Germany; even in cricket-mad India, millions will be glued to ESPN and Star Sports broadcasting the World Cup – in Hindi.

Futebol internacional

What a billion TV viewers always want to see is encapsulated by an unforgettable goal. Something like these four seconds of supreme catharsis recently provided by Ronaldinho.

On March 7, 2006, 98,000 people are crammed at the vertiginous five-tiered stands of the Camp Nou and hundreds of millions are glued to their TVs around the globe watching European giants Barcelona against Chelsea playing a do-or-die match for the Champions League. Seventy-eight minutes past, the match is still 0-0. Then, Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o – the third-best player in the world – spots Ronaldinho dashing toward the penalty box. At this moment there were no fewer than three Chelsea defenders – including John Terry, arguably the best in the world – between Ronaldinho and Peter Cech – arguably the best goalkeeper in the world.

As soon as he got the ball, Ronaldinho went turbo, moving with three very fast steps with his right foot so much as caressing the ball. The brute force of John Terry appeared in front of him like a tank. In an intuitive split second, Ronaldinho swayed to the right and, with his eyes totally focused on the ball, prepared himself for a clash. As Terry tried to knock him down at the edge of the box, Ronaldinho evaded him like a toreador, changed direction, left Terry on the ground and struck a swift, powerful shot that whizzed past Cech.

This was not only a goal as a work of art. It was a lesson on how a single man topples an empire – not so much the British but Russian billionaire tycoon Roman Abramovich’s, who had spent more than half a billion dollars to build Chelsea into a world-class team. It was also the reason the bright, canary-yellow Brazilian jersey – the canarinho, as it’s affectionately called in Brazil – is capable of marveling taxi drivers in Baghdad, customs officers in Dubai, guerrillas in Timor and Hindus in Kolkata.

And there’s always an added bonus. This is no US Army invading Iraq. As Germany’s Der Spiegel nailed it, “The Brazilians aren’t omnipotent, so the others have a chance of winning as well … Arrogance is alien to them. Their victories are often so inspiring that the whole world wants to don a yellow shirt and be a Brazilian. And that is globalization at its best.”

To the back of the net

Football’s symbolic clashes may leave permanent scars. The English are still reeling from Maradona’s legendary “Hand of God” goal in 1986 – even though everyone else is still marveling at the other goal the Argentine scored a few minutes later.

In the World Cup, elimination is lethal and final – like shock and awe over Baghdad. Always ready to capitalize on the popular narrative, governments around the world will use the World Cup for political ends. All over the developing world, their strategy may be to capitalize on bread and circus – while for the excluded hordes, football remains the field of dreams that leads to escape from misery and reaching the stars.

To win a World Cup is the postmodern equivalent of winning a war. But with no target bombings, no deceit and no “collateral damage.” So on Friday in Berlin let this war, this religion, prevail – leaving history, realpolitik and social conflict, at least for a moment, with a red card.