World Cup fever has once again seized the globe with a religious fervor extending from the humblest worshiper to the highest religious office in the world.
In a world growing increasingly critical of those who claim faith in a higher power, something about sporting competitions, the World Cup in particular, inspires a religious zeal in all but the most cynical participants. At the beginning of the contest, prayers call for the favorite team to win. Upon scoring, contestants look to the sky in tribute to the invisible hands that gifted the achievement. And upon winning, victors claim that they received divine favor. Nobody talks about the deserving teams that lost, the last-second goal attempts that did not make it to their target, or the devastating injuries that led to the end of an athlete’s career. On game day, everybody claims God is on their side. Perhaps this comes from the sense that we are all part of something larger than ourselves.
Soccer, known internationally as football, is the most popular sport on the planet. This deep and passionate connection between sport and fervor is seen every four years on the grandest scale of all, at the World Cup. This tournament, which began June 12 and runs through July 13, has already evoked emotional highs and lows, and invoked prayers–and pleas–for blessings upon the 32 international teams in the competition.
In host nation Brazil, a giant iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer stands on the mountaintop overlooking Rio de Janeiro, offering mute support for the football festivities happening below. Ask a resident of this Catholic nation who is greater: God or Pele? And you will learn that God is of course greater, because he created The Beautiful Game and gave Pele the skill to be the greatest footballer of all time.
In England, the Church of England published a collection of prayers for the English team, for Brazil as host nation, for the World Cup event, and even for anone who is paying no attention to the World Cup whatsoever. Notably, one of the prayers for the English team simply says, “Oh, God….” This proved not enough help for the team, as they lost all three of their group play games, and are headed home to watch the rest of the World Cup as spectators.
Australia did their part to capitalize on the religious persuasions of the host nation. Before the team even left for Brazil, gambling company Sportsbet floated a larger-than-life size Christ the Redeemer hot air balloon over Melbourne. The 151 foot Jesus replica sported an Australia football jersey with the #24 and Keep the Faith printed across the back. It was meant ostensibly as a display of solidarity with the team, to encourage and uplift them as they headed to the tournament. Many religious people were offended by the potential connection between Jesus and gambling, but others enjoyed the fact that this giant floating messiah figure might remind some of Jesus’ presence in a difficult moment. Still others felt it appropriate as a request for assistance for the Australian team, who did fair to earn a spot in the World Cup tournament but seemed to rely on divine intervention as their strategy during their games. In the end, the Socceroos went 0-3 at the group play stage, and are headed home as well.
Egypt has brought a different sort of element into the World Cup and religion mix, as Vice-Chief of the Salafi Dawa, Yasser Borhamy, decried football as useless entertainment that distracts devout Muslims from their religious focus. He forbade Muslims from watching any of the World Cup games, a move that even upset other Muslims. Religious scholars at Azhar University, Mohamed Raafat Othman and Bakr Zaky Awad, disagree with the edict, saying Islam does not forbid all entertainment and that Muslims are to be good to those not of the faith. They share concern that this edict shows a lack of understanding of the intricacies of Islamic scripture, and that it makes Islam look bad to those outside the faith.
In Rome, Pope Francis, football fan and Argentine native, has had to diplomatically note that he is not praying for the success of Argentina in the neighboring Brazil. Instead, he sent a message to all players and fans advocating teamwork and solidarity during this month-long competition, and advising against the racism and materialism that can mar exhibitions in this sport.
Prayers or not, the Argentine footballers may soon make the Pope proud. Argentina is playing well and is a favorite to win the tournament after top seeded Spain was eliminated in group play. Perhaps the Pope has a divine connection with The Beautiful Game after all.