THREE STORIES IN THE KEY OF: GOOOOOOOOLLLLLLL!

Half of humanity tunes in to the World Cup every four years, making it the single most watched event on the planet. True, most people probably see it as an escape from the tumult and tensions of global politics. But we at Signal are incorrigible nerds who just can’t help it… So here are three big political stories that, while watching the World Cup, we JUST CAN’T UNSEE.


Anti-establishment upstarts: Brexit. Trump. Duterte. Five Star. Mahathir (sort of), insert your example here, but knocking the establishment off its perch is all the rage in global politics these days and, at least so far, this World Cup is no exception. For one thing, perennial powerhouses Italy (which has won four cups) and the Netherlands (a reliably strong team which has been to the finals the most times without winning) inexplicably failed even to qualify.

Now, in the early days of play, we’ve already seen some startling upsets: Mexico beat defending champs Germany, causing an actual earthquake back home, and tiny Iceland, playing in its first world cup ever under the direction of a part-time dentist, managed a tie against mighty Argentina (cue jokesabout how Argentina has big trouble with tiny islands). Throw in Portugal wrestling Spain to a draw, and the Swiss doing the same to tournament favorites Brazil, and disruption is in the air.

Still, a lot of World Cups have kicked off with some upsets — but in the end, a small group comes out on top: in fact, since 1950, just one final match has been played without Brazil, Germany, Argentina, or Italy in it. And who could forget English football god Gary Lineker’s famous definition of football as “a simple game, in which 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and in the end, the Germans win.” Will that idea hold, or is another expert opinion about to get sent off?

Spy games: The World Cup is a contest among nations and all nations spy on each other, full stop. Some are just better at it than others.

A few weeks ago, a random Swedish fellow showed up at the South Korean team’s training facility in Austria, pretending to be a “tourist.” They kicked him out. So he drove up a nearby mountain overlooking the pitch and paid a local couple to let him set up shop in their house with a telescope and a camera. His mission: record and report on Korea’s tactics in order to help the Swedes win in their upcoming World Cup match.

Of course, the only thing that trumps good intelligence is better counterintelligence — so to confuse the Swedish tourist/mountaintop-peeper, the South Korean coach switched his players’ numbers from practice to practice because, he said, “it is very difficult for Westerners to distinguish between Asians, and that’s why we did that.”

Sweden defeated South Korea 1–0 on Monday.

The (hi)stories in the rosters: World Cup players must be citizens of the countries that field them, and yet dozens of them weren’t actually born under the flags they play for. The story of the moment there, of course, is that the debate about immigration and naturalization is setting fire to politics in the US and Europe almost daily (see Germany above).

But there’s also a broader historical sweep written into these rosters:

The legacy of French colonialism in the dozens of French-born players who have gone to play for Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia, where they have family ties.

The anguish of the former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s, reflected in the number of ethnic Serbian, Croatian, and Kosovar players on Switzerland’s roster.

The story of how a booming post-war West German economy would ultimately transform German society by admitting hundreds of thousands of low-wage Turkish “guest workers” in the 1960s, among them the grandparents of Germany’s (and Arsenal’s) star midfielder Mesut Özil.

World history written in the rosters of the World Cup. What other stories do you see here?

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.