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The Beautiful Game: Teaching and Learning With the World Cup

Tim Howard
The 2010 World Cup got underway on Friday, June 11. As soccer fans all over the world drop everything to root for their team, we present some ideas for teaching and learning about this global phenomenon.

Note that while we have categorized the activities by subject area, many are interdisciplinary.

How are you capitalizing on the World Cup as a teachable moment? Please share your ideas!

Language Arts

What do you know about soccer? Test your knowledge of basic facts about “the beautiful game” by completing our World Cup Student Crossword.

How does scoring work in soccer and in the World Cup tournament overall? Take a look at the rules of the game and the World Cup’s system of advancement, then write an essay comparing and contrasting it with a sport you know well, including its championship system.

Once you understand the World Cup brackets, adapt them to settle the academic question of your choice, referring to our lesson on the N.C.A.A. tournament.

Read several posts from the Goal: World Cup blog. Then look at The Onion Sports Network’s satirical coverage, including its infographic on how the game works, and write your own satire based on one of the Goal posts you read.

Attend or watch on television or YouTube a Major League Soccer game – or local or school soccer match – and write a descriptive sports article about the action and atmosphere.

Global History

Look at the history of South Africa through the lens of the World Cup, considering the legacy of apartheid and how it continues to reverberate through life and politics. How is the history and culture of South Africa refracted through the nation’s role as World Cup host?

Who is Nelson Mandela? Why does he remain a nationwide – and worldwide – icon and hero? What was his role in bringing the World Cup to South Africa? What role does he play in South Africa today? What does the Mandela family mean and represent to the South African populace?

Social Studies and Psychology

Learn about South Africa and its people, from its hoped-for lasting effects of hosting the World Cup to its preparations for the games, its team’s predicted early exit from the tournament and the home team’s fans undeterred, ubiquitous celebrating with vuvuzelas and Diski dancing.

Aside from soccer, what else can fans visiting for the World Cup experience in South Africa? What can they learn about local culture and history from touring the area? Peruse the South Africa Travel Guide and design your own South Africa itinerary, or research destinations in other countries whose teams are playing in the World Cup tournament. Then hold a “travel fair” sharing details about these imagined excursions.

How is hosting the World Cup affecting the national psyche of South Africa and the national soccer team and their fans? (And how are other rivalries and tensions playing out on the World Cup fields?) Complete our 6 Q’s About the News installment Uniting Their Nation after reading the related article about the South African soccer team. You might compare the experience of South Africa with that of Canada, which hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Listen to the Freakonomics World Cup Edition to learn about behavioral phenomena related to soccer, the home-field advantage of soccer-only stadiums and the surest way for players to score on penalty kicks — and why they seldom use this method. Apply the same psychological concepts to situations in daily life. Are there any connections?

Media Studies and Popular Culture

The World Cup frenzy speeds across the globe every four years. Still, it hasn’t gained a significant foothold in the United States. Or has it? Propose new ways to promote soccer in the U.S. to fans of other popular sports, such as hockey and (American) football, and fans of the Olympic Games and other international sports competitions.

Who are the stars in the soccer firmament? Choose one top player – such as Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan or Simon Kjaer – and develop a public image campaign designed to boost his visibility and popularity in the U.S. and/or around the world.


Learn about Europe’s famed Ajax Soccer Academy, which trains boys as young as seven to become professional players. Is this a dream come true for the boys and their families or does it hasten the end of playing just for the love of the game? Should the academy offer spots to girls? Write a response essay that presents your take.

The World Cup’s no-obscenity rule has referees scrambling to learn the curse words found in the 17 languages spoken by players. Hold a debate that addresses this issue, including degree of harm offensive language does when the words are not understood by the person or group who hears it and the disrespect it shows (or doesn’t) to referees, opponents, teammates, spectators and the game itself. What about any erosion of goodwill and understanding between players from different nations?

Visual Arts

Check out the posters created for the 2010 World Cup and choose one or two as inspiration for a poster of your own, either promoting the World Cup or something else.

Watch the slide show The Evolution of the World Cup Soccer Ball, then design (or create!) your own soccer ball.

Check out the architecture of the ten stadiums where the World Cup games will be held, and design one of your own on graph paper or using computer software.

Choose a photograph from The Times’s World Cup coverage and analyze it, both in terms of photographic technique and aesthetics as well as in terms of the “story” it tells and the emotions it telegraphs. What’s happening in the picture? What makes it an effective photo? How do sports photographers get their shots? Then take photos of a local or school sports event with the purpose of capturing at least one key, emotional moment.

Science and Health

Find out what is so controversial among goalies about the official World Cup ball, which is called the Jabulani and made by Adidas. Investigate physics concepts like spin and aerodymanics to explain why soccer balls can differ widely—inside and out.

What other laws of physics are involved in the game of soccer? Consider the physics of other sports and apply them to soccer. Explain the science of soccer in a video and post it on SchoolTube.

Watch the 2010 World Cup: Fighting AIDS video to see how a U.S. health agency is capitalizing on the World Cup’s popularity to teach about HIV/AIDS prevention and testing. Learn about South Africa’s official anti-AIDS campaign. Then read about the crisis throughout Africa before coming up with a list of other ways to use national and global events to promote public health programs.


Look at the infographic Soccer World Cup Miscellany and use the chart to create a Jeopardy!-style math game for student competitors to play, with such questions as “What is the record for most goals in a World Cup final?” “How many times has the host country won?” “How many times has the host country placed in the top three?” “What percentage of games end in ties?” and “Which country has had the most success in World Cup play?”

Create your own graphical interpretation of some subset of the data on Ben Schott’s chart and/or other set of World Cup statistics. You might challenge yourself to represent a specific data set, such as creating a pie chart showing the percentage of World Cup wins by continent. Or you could take the data and interpret it visually any way you like.

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