Over the last few weeks, much of the world has clustered around TVs, watching World Cup rivals fight for the right to hoist what may be the ugliest trophy in sport. Inevitable arguments have broken out over who ought to win, and who invented “the beautiful game.” As we head toward the final match this weekend, it’s all made us wonder: could humankind ever apply that same energy and enthusiasm to the distinctly less exciting pursuit of sustainability?

At some point along the way, whether you peg soccer’s origins to soldiers in China’s Han Dynasty, the Greeks and Romans, or Britain — where one of the earliest matches is said to have been played with the severed head of a just-defeated Danish prince — this game evolved into one of the world’s shared passions. It has also become a humongous industry, with a range of impacts on a dizzying array of other sectors.

So great is soccer’s current impact that it is easy to identify industries that are pretty much guaranteed winners during tournaments. As this year’s World Cup got into its stride, for example, sales of electronic goods jumped 19 percent over last year at John Lewis, a major British retailer. Supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Waitrose reported huge rises in sales of beer, wine, and barbecue foods, and it was estimated that each of England’s games would add more than $50 million to pub profits. Meanwhile, industry experts estimated that roughly $550 million extra would be spent on food- and beverage-related advertising during the Cup.

And what about the losers? In addition to the teams that fail to make the two-year qualifying cut, they include travel agents, as people stay closer to home; real-estate agents, as large numbers of people shelve plans to buy homes until the Cup is over; and cinemas, some of which closed their doors during England’s matches because so few people were turning out.

On the whole, though, the retail industry says the Cup is a good thing for the economy. So let’s turn our minds to that champion among questions: how we might sex up sustainability to inspire the same passion, and even greater economic impact.

We take our cue in part from one of our favorite social enterprises, the Homeless World Cup, launched in 2003 by Scottish entrepreneur Mel Young. Later this year, 500 players representing nearly 50 countries head to Cape Town, South Africa, determined to “kick off global poverty and change their lives forever.” Evidence suggests that the approach can have results: in 2005, 77 percent of the once-homeless players involved in the program had made significant changes in their lives. More than a third found regular employment, and a similar proportion improved their housing situation.

So let’s take one issue, kick it about a bit, and see how it might play in the Sustainability World Cup.

What’s “Moby Dick” in Mongolian?

Recently, Japan made headlines for pushing to overturn the international whaling ban, strong-arming such unlikely nations as landlocked Mongolia into supporting a pro-hunting stance. Most of this type of lobbying goes on behind the scenes, but what if we were to bring it out into the open? What if sustainability-related lobbying took place in front of thousands of deeply vested observers? Would licensing and sponsorship deals amass if we were to play for the future of, say, the minke whale?

Here they come now: Japan in the red shirts, the International Whaling Commission in green. The guards frisk the players to ensure they aren’t wielding harpoons, the crowd roars, a Greenpeace helicopter drops the ball dead-center on the field … and they’re off.

To crank up the viewing pleasure even further, we might add a bit more spice — plus a measure of democracy — with citizens and organizations around the world encouraged to use the potential of interactive media (and their remotes) to influence the outcome. Governments and NGOs would be “fans” right alongside business and finance, briefing and counter-briefing each other on the benefits of turning endangered leviathans into steaks. In the end, the teams would play not only their immediate opponents, but anyone around the globe who took an interest in the issue at hand.

If we were really Roman about the thing, the referee could give an ultimate thumbs up or down. Losing teams could be forced to pay up — for instance, ending subsidies to their share of the 3 million or so fishing vessels busily undermining marine ecosystems. Even if the whalers swept the field, they’d be in the winners’ spotlight, so their once-stealthy operations would come under intense scrutiny.

And it wouldn’t have to stop with soccer: imagine politicians competing in a round-the-world hot-air balloon race, investors taking part in sweepstakes where losers had to give a year’s income to environmental cleanups, and Formula 1 designers competing to pass the checkered flag with the greenest technology on wheels.

It could all turn out to be a lot more interesting than rehashed Big Brother episodes. (For that matter, imagine the reality-TV possibilities: Punk’d depicting unsuspecting big-shot polluters; The Apprentice fast-forwarding business models into various resource-constrained futures, with successful competitors given public-sector support and unsuccessful ones declared bankrupt; Wife Swap encouraging greens and non-greens to set up house together.)

But it will be a tough nut to crack. Part of the challenge, as ever, will be overturning entrenched powers who have a vested interest in the status quo. Despite global participation and interest, for instance, only seven different nations have won the 16 tournaments in World Cup history. This year, in spite of the great promise of teams from Africa and Asia, six of the eight quarterfinal teams, and all four of the semifinal teams, were European. Further, some World Cup observers argue that the rules too often bend in favor of the most established teams, suspecting favors by the referees. It’s all uncomfortably similar to the way the global sustainability game is currently played: G8 nations and Fortune 500 firms almost always make the playoffs, pretty much regardless of performance. And when the refs do intervene with progressive regulation or innovative codes of conduct, offenders like heavily polluting nations or industries are allowed to play on in return for weakly enforced promises that they will change — some day.

Encouraging more active citizen participation — which would fly in the face of declining voting rates — could pump up green consumer appetites and might even trigger something akin to the emotional upwellings that move the fans who paint their faces, wear team colors, and sing team songs. With many erstwhile activists now in the employ of big corporations, the time has come to crank up the volume again, reminding each of us that this really is a matter of life and death — both for today’s billions of have-nots and for future generations whose world, whatever sport they’re watching by then, will be rocking on its climatic hinges.