The World Cup has all the goods to capture your attention and imagination: the elegance of world class athletes, with their steaming tackles, set piece wizardry, dives, flops, lung-bursting runs down the wing, their counterattacks and deadbolt defenses.
There’s also the hope and heartbreak of nations, the pageantry of flags and banners in the crowd, the dodgy refereeing, and, if you’re intrigued by the seamier side of things, the corruption of FIFA, the international organization sponsoring the World Cup, and worries about hooligans in the streets outside the stadium, too. It’s all very gripping, to say the least.
The final match of the tournament will have a global TV and internet audience of about a billion people, meaning it’s a cultural phenomenon on the scale of, say, the English language, or Catholicism. And like Catholicism, the appeal of the World Cup, and soccer in general, is just begging to be theologically analyzed and understood.
There are plenty of relatively obvious observations you could make. Yes, the players are worshipped as gods. Yes, a banner hangs from a terrace at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s stadium, that says FOR EVERY MANC A RELIGION.
Yes, religious language is often brought into service to describe the game’s dramatic moments: a ball surreptitiously punched into the net by a diminutive Argentinian is dubbed “the hand of God.” Yes, like anything, this can all get quite idolatrous.
Long distance love
My own conversion (there’s that language again) happened during the World Cup in 2010. Prior to then, I’d been a casual fan, watching international tournaments with friends, but never getting particularly riled up about it.
Something gripped me during that South African World Cup though, and I followed the Dutch squad all the way to that heartbreaking final.
After the tournament, I decided I needed a club team to follow. The big summer tournaments are like mission trips or youth conferences; you pack a lot of fervent devotion into a short span of time. A real acolyte grinds it out during the regular club season, which, in Europe, stretches from mid-August through May. The months in between contain a long winter, often filled with discontent. Like some old dour Presbyterians, soccer fans can be a despairing lot.
I pledged my fidelity to Liverpool FC of the English Premier League. A club with a glorious past, a club from a proud city, a club that had, at that point, fallen on some hard times.
I recorded matches on my DVR. I devoured punditry on YouTube and downloaded podcasts. I read player biographies and stacks of other books. I sought out social media accounts for witty banter during matches. I wore a club scarf while watching those matches. I argued about tactics at the pub. I pored over the city on Google maps, searching for the neighbourhoods where favourite players grew up.
On one hand, there’s something really strange about this longing, this long distance love. I’ve never even been to Liverpool. I’ve never breathed the sea air on its famous docks, never had chippy tea in Bootle, never taken a ferry ‘cross the Mersey, never sat in the red seats of Anfield, LFC’s hallowed stadium. It remains a foreign land, but something draws me toward it nonetheless.
But on the other hand, this sort of longing runs deep, doesn’t it?
A longing to see the culmination of some high drama, in some theatre of glory, on the bright shores of some faraway land. The heart inclines heavenward, even when it’s focused on the green grass of the soccer pitch.
I’m sure you could see it on those billion faces – of every tongue, tribe and nation – gathered around the TV on the final day of the World Cup.
I know, I know – it’s just a game. So then: may this longing be someday satisfied by something even better.
Reprinted courtesy of the Christian Courier