Monday, June 21, 2010


Every time the World Cup comes along, I think of the accidents and incidents of geography that I have wondered about since I was small and learning the stuff in school. I've always wondered about continents, empires, and the paths of human migration. But the list of continents always fascinated me.

The Earth, seen from space by an alien visitor, would appear to have at most six large bodies of land: Eurasia (about 55m sq km), separated from Africa (about 30.2m sq km) by the Mediterranean Sea, Suez Canal and Red Sea; North America (about 24.7m sq km), separated from South America (about 17.8m sq km) by the Panama Canal; Antarctica (14m sq km), not connected to any other major land mass; and Australia (7.6m sq km), suspiciously close to islands like New Guinea. I don't think any alien would see Europe as a continent; the geographical lines of division just aren't clear enough. But if you chopped Europe off from Eurasia (for the sake of argument), then Asia would still be the largest continent, and Europe (at 10.2m sq km) would be the second smallest.

Taking a look at maps doesn't help very much, because the venerable old Mercators most people use seem to show North America as larger than Africa and Europe as this enormous thing through which the Greenwich meridian runs. But China alone (roughly 9.7m sq km) is almost as large as this imaginary geographical European continent, and the current Russian Federation, most of which is in Asia, covers 17.1m sq km. The only sense in which Europe is a continent is in that waffle of 'shared cultural and political heritage' — a waffle that actually has a fair amount of truth in it.

Why is Europe still given such special status? Perhaps it is because in 1900, when the big geopolitical maps were first drawn to define the modern world, Europe contained 25% of the world's population. Now, it contains just a bit more than 10%, a percentage that is falling by about 1% every decade. Perhaps it is colour: Europeans used to be thought of as fair-skinned Nordic types, at their darkest perhaps Mediterranean. Now, a quick look at any European football team will show that they are a lot darker. (Especially France, that little state which claims to be the heart of Western Europe.)

It is all still a mystery. They have an awful lot of football teams in the World Cup, and in the qualifying rounds and final tournament, more teams per capita than any other continent. I mean, poor Australia gets only 1 team (two if you include New Zealand), and has to compete with the rest of Asia. It all comes down to heterogeneity defeating homogeneity; China, Russia and India are big, but have no representation this year at the World Cup.

The world is a wonderful place. I am glad to be in it.

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