As popular soccer commentators Men in Blazers like to point out, soccer has been “America’s sport of the future” since at least 1972 (and possibly earlier). It’s a game that is played by billions of people across the globe, making it easily the most popular sport in the entire world. However, when you’re the one on top it’s very easy for people to take shots at the crown, and soccer has weathered its fair share of criticism throughout the years.

If you’re a fan or have ever played the sport, you know full well that There Will Be Haters. You’ve probably encountered many of these people over the course of your lifetime. But don’t let their uninformed shade-throwing change your opinion about the beautiful game. After all, there’s a reason it’s played and watched in every country on the planet, bridging gaps between age, sex, race, and class.

Indeed, what differentiates soccer from every other sport is that it’s more than just a game; it’s a passion and way of life that binds a huge portion of humanity together.

As if you needed confirmation about the global popularity of the sport, here’s a look at just a few of the numbers from last summer’s World Cup:

Its immense popularity across the world positions soccer in a way entirely apart from anything else. The sport is truly one of the few global phenomena, residing at the intersection of world sport, politics, fashion, and culture. A player like Lionel Messi is equally as famous in the United Kingdom as he is in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For 90 minutes, centuries-old grudges get put aside as teams compete with one another on the field. In a sports world that's increasingly focused on the individual, soccer remains purely about the collective effort towards a single goal.

Image via REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

The simple beauty of the game makes it easy for people of all ages to understand quickly, and it has helped to build a universal fan base. Men and women, old and young, rich and poor, all gather together in front of their televisions and at the stadium, putting surface differences aside and allowing their love of the game to bring them together. One of the greatest traits of the game is its inclusive nature, welcoming a constant stream of new members into this global brotherhood of fans.

When you actually go see your team in person, it is unlike any live event you’ve ever attended. Sure, there are the occasional over-the-top opposing fans, but for the most part everybody is just there to support their team and have a good time. Particularly when it comes to international matches, the supporters of both teams know exactly where the line separating good and bad fan behavior is, and it nearly always sticks to the upstanding, well-mannered side. Even though you may be rooting for the opposite result on the field, you and your fellow fans will still be able to coexist and enjoy each other’s company before and after the match. The result of this collegial atmosphere is a live experience where even in the most heated of moments you never have to fear for your personal safety, and, instead, can focus your energy on supporting your team and actually enjoying yourself.

It’s no wonder, then, that global soccer has a huge number of famous supporters. Whether it’s politicians like Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, and the late Nelson Mandela of South Africa, celebrities like Gisele Bündchen and Will Ferrell, or fellow athletes like LeBron James, some of the biggest names across the globe are huge soccer fans who go out of their way to watch the game in person. Whether it’s in politics, popular culture, or sports, these figures wield huge influence as global tastemakers, and their unanimous love for the sport stands in stark contrast to their deep differences in many other respects.

Image via London Evening Standard

In the end, what makes soccer so special is its ability to pull in people from all walks of life, throw them together, and end up with a universally positive experience. The international game does this particularly well, and some of the world’s bigger clubs are not far behind. While it can be frustrating to watch a team like Real Madrid or Chelsea snatch up the world’s top talent at times, these super teams are also bringing together some of the most diverse talent from around the world. These teams are becoming global melting pots, building unexpected bridges between cultures and creating legions of new fans in the process.

Indeed, what separates soccer from any other piece of world culture is its ability to bring people with absolutely nothing in common together. While it’s true that many sports cause fans to hug complete strangers in celebration, there’s no comparison when it comes to the beautiful game’s international appeal and widespread influence on the hearts and minds of billions. Soccer is a simple game that belongs to the world, and, in return, the world finds a way to put its myriad of problems on hold for 90 minutes at a time and simply enjoy it together.