I'm moving to England in two days to begin work on my PhD in Theology. My good friend Justin, who lives in Portland ("Basically a European city," he likes to brag), wrote me a fantastic email attempting to prep me for my new life as a soccer fan. Me, the anti-soccer person.
Since high school, I viewed soccer players and fans the same way I do Calvinists: quasi-arrogant, prissy, turtleneck-wearing short-hairs who can't take a hit and think their theology/way-of-thinking is the only one worth intellectual adherence. That's how all my buddies on the football team viewed soccer "people." Well, maybe sans the Calvinism angle.
Justin suggested my view of soccer players and fans was cultural. In the American south (where I was born and most recently lived), football is a religion. But in the Pacific northwest and California, the hip, athletic cool-dudes play soccer.
I was in northern Brazil during the World Cup. (I was 17.) It was insane. When Brazil scored a goal, the kids ran into the streets yelling, "Viva Brazil!" and shot crazy fireworks, the kind we in the U.S. call illegal. The restaurants paused their service to celebrate with cheering, yelling, and general sport-type shenanigans. Citizens painted the trees green and yellow and white.
They made me love them who love soccer; for that summer, at least.
But there are still those friends of mine who wag their heads and "Pshh!" when the discussion arises about the best game. "American football? Please!" In their case, I just want to pull their turtlenecks over their heads and ram them a few times with my shoulder pads.
That, however, is not a godly response to sport fanaticism. Plus, I might get slapped with a hefty fine from the NFL Commissioner! Instead, I need to adopt the same response I've crafted to Calvinists:
Ignore them while loving them and engaging with them at the same time.
A Grand Cultural Expression
Justin enlightened me on the grand cultural expression that soccer represents. "Soccer isn't the best game," he explained. "It's the best sport, and here's why." His explanation was so good, I include it here in its entirety:
Soccer is the world's greatest sport because it transcends the game itself. Soccer isn't just about putting a ball in a goal. It's an expression of identity, culture, politics, and hundreds of years of human history - the good, the bad, and the ugly.
It's the players in the Ivory Coast who stopped a civil war through soccer, the protestors in Turkey who have created a coalition of rival fans to overthrow a dictator, the 3000+ fans who showed up in Portland to help an 8yr old's Make-a-Wish come true.
Soccer brought racial reconciliation in South Africa and saw bodies in the street on the same day. It was soccer that had Margaret Thatcher declaring in the 90's that soccer hooliganism in Britain was the single greatest threat to national security.
Soccer is like the Gospel. It's messy, gritty, joyous, redemptive one minute, devastating the next. It expresses the best parts of the human heart and reveals the absolute worst. Soccer is the Crusades and the Reformation - at the same time.
I felt my heart sway. Could I be a soccer fan? Will I be sneaking to the pub to watch the match when I should be writing my dissertation?
The Gospel of Soccer
Is soccer like the gospel? I don't know. But if it's pure and turns social norms and even societies upside down, while imbuing individuals with passion and love, then I'm willing to try and embrace it like I do the Gospel.
I worry, though: What if I start liking soccer so much I begin to believe in predestination? Perish the thought! Am I going to start wearing "Calvin is my Homeboy" t-shirts or begin speaking in hyper-Kuyperian drivel?
Justin thinks soccer is poised to take over America. And he sent the video below as proof. It makes me want to move to Portland. Not even Philadelphia Eagle fans get this worked up, and that's saying something!
I suppose not all soccer players wear turtlenecks. And from the looks of Ronaldo (pictured above), I guess most of them are stallions, not pansies.
I'm willing to swallow my high school prejudice and go watch Arsenal and Tottenham clash in North London this year. Justin says the stadiums stand four miles apart with 130 years of economic and political history behind the teams.
I'll pack a helmet, some riot gear and an abridged copy of the Institutes. But I refuse to wear a turtleneck.
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.