According to Nelson Mandela (and he should know), it’s all about the unity. “[The World Cup] symbolizes the power of football to bring people together from all over the world, regardless of language, the colour of one’s skin, political or religious persuasion.” Nelson Mandela, in a message to the FIFA congress, Johannesburg. And it’s this mystical unifying power that makes the beautiful game most attractive.
Sure, there’s the sheer joy of the sport, the vicarious thrill of victory, the unparalleled power of a footballer’s leg, and force-of-nature playmaking skills of athletes like the Netherland’s Arjen Robben or Germany’s Miroslav Klose. But in this tournament there’s something more.
The National Geographic’s Sean Wilsey captures it best, “What makes the World Cup most beautiful is the world, all of us together. The joy of being one of the billion or more people watching 32 countries abide by 17 rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite us all.”
Deep down we all want this.
We long to live in a world that operates the way it ought to; where nations are allowed to be fully and uniquely themselves – nationally, ethnically, religiously, socio-economically – while still singing their anthems side by side in the stadium of life. African Vuvuzelas buzzing over Britain’s, God Save the Queen, and Germany’s chart topping, ‘Schland oh Schland’!
We yearn for a world where the playing field is truly level, where a poor boy from Uruguay can become a global superstar, where a third world Ghana can again defeat a first world United States – this time during a G20 meeting!
We crave the kindness and humanity of a Muslim Iranian football squad that brings pre-game flowers to a Catholic Mexican goaltender who has just lost his mother, as they did in 2006.
We’re desperate for a force that can cause wars to cease, just as qualifying for the World Cup tournament did for the Ivory Coast in that same year.
And deep inside we want to believe that there really is ‘one thing’ that can unite us all. We hope against hope that there is some greater force for good that can capture our imaginations; that can cause us to take our eyes off of our limited, sometimes selfish selves, and allow us to see the freedom of an unbounded bigger picture.
We want to be a part of something significant, something larger than life, something beautiful!
In a world that is rife with sectarian violence, terrorized by the ever elusive evil of racism, plagued by wicked forces of poverty and illness, strained by excessive anxiety and stress, bogged down by boredom and ennui, and deeply searching for a greater meaning – a world that’s lost its ability to play – we long for a better reality; for a new way of life.
The World Cup offers a pointer to this possibility (even with all of its fallibilities). It ignites the child within and dares it to step on the field and play again, to move past the ubiquitous cynicism that says, ‘Impossible;’ …to have faith.
The World Cup begs us to grow young again, and dares us to dream of the possibility of glory, to believe that everyone has a chance and deserves to play the game. Children from around the world are now drawing this kind of inspiration from the World Cup. Hope is being kindled in each of their young hearts. As they take in the beauty, grandeur and passion of the sport, an all-too-human dream is growing. One that says, “I can do that one day!”
And perhaps, one day, they will… lead us into a more unified, peace-filled, global future.
Who hasn’t dreamed of playing that game? Which of us ‘often picked last sorts’ doesn’t yearn for the chance to play on that team? The world as it should be. An ancient Hebrew prophet once described heaven as a place where, “The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” Zechariah 8:5
In a world where children starve in the streets, where some lose limbs, and others their very lives, this image is what, I imagine, we all hope for; simple yet beautiful.
A beautiful game. Heaven on earth.