God and the World Cup

Seeking the sacred in soccer


For me, the World Cup intimates something of what God is and can be for us. The principle guiding our getting together and enjoying life. The meaning of our days. The joy of our victories and our consoler in defeat. If, as St. Ignatius taught, we should seek God in all things and God wants to be with the people of earth, then He has to be at the World Cup in South Africa this summer. Look for Him there.

It was 1982. I was teaching an English class of fifty primeros (high school freshmen) at Colegio San Mateo, the Jesuit school in Osorno, Chile, deep in the South of that beautiful country. Class was rolling along. The Chilean kids were always respectful and well behaved. Suddenly, they all just started standing up and walking out the classroom door. I stood there confused. What was going on?

Don’t know how I missed the memo. All anyone had been talking about for days was “La Copa.” The whole school was heading for the cafeteria to watch Chile play Austria in Spain. The 600 kids in the high school gathered around a small 19-inch TV. You heard more than saw the game. The whole school, faculty, staff and students, was glued to that screen and the announcer’s voice. I had seen my hometown Philadelphia’s frenzied fans all my life (and no, we don’t throw batteries, at least not often, and the snowballs and Santa incident has been blown way out of proportion) but Philly’s fanatics could not compare to the pulsating energy in that room in Chile. The vibe was radical. It went to the roots of human hearts and souls. I was hooked.

In that game, Carlos Caszely missed a penalty kick against Austria, an event in Chilean sport’s history that makes Bill Buckner’s booting the ball in the 1986 World Series seem inconsequential. When Caszely blew it, the Chilean kids were devastated. You would have thought Caszely — one of Chile’s greatest players — had killed their grandmothers and then stolen their dogs. It happened almost thirty years ago and YouTube has half a dozen showings of the infamous miss, several more than Buckner’s error.

Not a whole lot got done in Chile those weeks in 1982. Not much was done anywhere else on the globe. Futbol (soccer) took over our lives. I found myself mesmerized. Why was everyone so caught up in this?

That was my introduction to the glorious madness that is “La Copa Mundial” — the World Cup. Here in the States, our Super Bowl, World Series and March Madness combined are to the World Cup, as Pee Wee football is to Joe Namath’s Jets upset of the Baltimore Colts in the third Super Bowl in January 1969.

The world’s largest communal event

Half the planet (except for most tone deaf Americans in the USA) will be glued to TV sets for some six hours a day these next few weeks. Most of the other half will be listening to the fans talking about the games. ESPN is broadcasting all the games and providing good coverage. But the rest of the U.S. media misses the biggest thing that’s going on these days. Sixty-four games; 5,760 minutes of the best futbol on the planet. Only once every four years does this happen. Cardiologists couldn’t keep up if this were an annual event.

The World Cup is the largest communal event the human race produces. It is fun, fabulous, fantastic. Fate seems to be the star player in many games. Magic and mystery pervade the history of the Cup. When Pele — arguably the greatest player ever, and a strong advocate for the poor, especially kids — was a child and Brazil lost, in 1950, he told his father that he himself would win the Cup for Brazil. In 1958 at 17, Pele scored two goals as Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2. A few years ago, a delightful movie about the Cup’s effect on a Buddhist monastery captured the transcendental nature of this quadrennial event.

So far this year, North Korea gave Brazil a game. When New Zealand scored in the 93rd minute to earn a tie against favored Slovakia, the Kiwis went nuts. South Africa’s goalie was red-carded and ejected. Mexico beat, I mean beat, France.

England’s goalie Rob Green muffed an easy shot by Clint Dempsey in the USA v. England game. Green will now join that pantheon of athletes known and remembered forever for the worst moment of their lives. Only God can help him now. Every day, every game, anything can happen. The trick is you have to wait for it.

Sometimes what you get when you wait isn’t pretty. The USA came back after being down 2-0 and won, but the ref disallowed the winning goal. Why? Only he and God know.

Willing to wait

To know and appreciate God, you have to be willing to wait. It’s the same with futbol. I grew up playing football and basketball and baseball. Soccer was just starting to have some sort of presence in the United States as I was finishing high school. Curiously, soccer has become a game for little kids in this country, and people often lose interest as adults. What a shame. The BBC reports, “Words can scarcely describe the electricity in [South Africa] at the moment.” Too many in the States are lights out ignoring this climactic show for the global village.

To know and appreciate God, you have to be willing to wait. It’s the same with futbol.

Futbol is really like a baseball game in which only grand slams count: the exquisite anticipation of hoping your team can press and press and press and finally score, and then the delicious anxiety of hoping they can hold a one-goal lead. Thrills of a lifetime are those rare, incredible moments when a team comes back from being down two goals to tie, or even win. It’s like making a half court shot at the buzzer. Maybe we in the USA don’t get it because our national pastime, baseball, is an individual game played by teams. Futbol is a team game played by individuals.

Goals are rare; they cannot be controlled or conjured up at the flick of a switch or push of a button. God too is not someone we can dial on our cell phones or Twitter. God is often better known through our anticipation of his seemingly infrequent appearances in our lives. We live on faith, facts of past experiences of God, and hope for future moments of deep contact with the source of our existence. Such moments help us seek and find God in all realities as the ground of all that exists and is.

God is like the bass line playing through the South African music; like the colors of the nations; like the cheers and songs; like the strength and purpose of the players; like the joy of the fans visible in painted faces; God is in the peaceful interaction of the millions involved. God is there. Watch and see if you can catch a glimpse of him.