In June and July of this year, the world’s eyes will be turned towards Russia as teams from 32 countries compete at the FIFA World Cup. Famed Liverpool football manager of the 1970s Bill Shankly half-jokingly said, “Football’s not a matter of life and death – it’s much more serious than that.” And for many of the players, team officials and fans it can certainly seem that way. After the 1994 World Cup, Colombian defender Andrés Escobar was murdered, reportedly for scoring an own goal that resulted in Colombia’s elimination from the tournament.
With such high stakes riding on the games, it is not surprising that many seek to gain divine favour for the matches. It is quite common to see players giving thanks to God after scoring a goal or winning a game. Sometimes it can be quite confusing to see a player make a public declaration that they “Belong to Jesus” or “Give Glory to God” on game-day and then to read of them living a playboy lifestyle of excess – drugs, gambling, sex, etc. off the field. However, there are players who have a real faith in God that goes deeper than what happens on the sporting field. In the 2014 World Cup, Brazil, who go into almost every tournament as one of the favourites, were also the hosts. Their tournament had been going according to plan until in the semifinal they suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany. The scenes of fans crying during the match were all over the internet the next day. What was not spread so widely was images of some of the Christian players in the Brazil team on their knees giving thanks to God after losing. This is an example of a real faith that is not dependent on the blessings that we hope for, but instead reflects an active and vital relationship with the living God.
Some of the players have amazing stories of their journeys to be where they are. Nigerian midfielder Victor Moses’ parents were pastors in his native Nigeria who were murdered when he was eleven in a religiously motivated attack while he was playing soccer on the streets. His extended family hid him and then sent him off to England as a refugee where he has become an elite football player. His faith has taught him to forgive those who murdered his parents.
Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas grew up in a small village in Costa Rica and is now the goalkeeper for Real Madrid – perhaps the biggest club in the world, but describes coming into a personal relationship with God as “the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me.” He attends Bible studies twice a week with other believing team-mates and attributes all of his blessings – his wife, children, and ability to play football at the level he does – to God.
Several of the Colombian team are also committed Christians and it is common to see the team huddle in prayer after a game. Star striker Radamel Falcao talks about how a footballer can have so much in the material world – wealth, talent, fame, and yet be spiritually empty. He explains how he finds spiritual satisfaction in his life through his relationship with Jesus Christ.
These players and many others will be under the microscope as they compete in this World Cup. The world will be watching them, to see how they perform, but also seeing how they react to the victories and losses that are part of sport but are multiplied in their significance in an event of this magnitude.
The World Cup will be a fantastic opportunity to talk with your friends about the spiritual nature of people, often revealed when they are under the microscope as these players are. Sharing this video about Falcao’s journey would be a great way to kick off that conversation.