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World Cup boosts growth, binds ties, even sparks war

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Question: what quadrennial sporting extravaganza brings the world together for weeks on end, transcending war, poverty, class, and culture, and culminating in the most watched television event ever?

If you guessed the Olympics, odds are you're an American. The rest of the world knows better. Soccer's World Cup kicks off Friday in Germany. And while the month-long spectacle may not leave much of an impression on Americans, for most other nations it is an incomparable event.

Brazilian banks will close early, British productivity will nosedive, elections in Mexico could be affected, the fate of the French prime minister may hang on results. The event will touch even the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, where scientists have set up a live Internet feed so as not to miss the action.

And at the grand finale on July 9, as many as a billion people - one-sixth of humanity - are expected to watch 22 men, adept at propelling a piece of leather around, compete for the ultimate victory in team sports.

"Every four years, it seems to get more and more crazy," says Johnny Rep, a legend of Dutch football - as the sport is known internationally - who played in two World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978. "In 1974 things were really only beginning to take off, but now it's crazy," he says by phone from the Netherlands where the national team's orange color is in "every bar, every cafe - everywhere is orange."

Germany is bracing for 4.5 million fans to arrive for the matches. The rest of the world is working to accommodate broadcasts. World Trade Organization negotiators have agreed to end meetings at 4 p.m. in time for kick-off. In China, 70 percent of football fans said they planned to watch all 63 matches, even though most will take place in the middle of the Chinese night. In the Koreas, North has turned to South for help with rebroadcasting, so its people can see some of the action. And Arab leaders are scrambling to help poor citizens see the games after a regional pay-TV network bought exclusive broadcasting rights.

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