At the time of this writing, the United States soccer team competing in the World Cup has won its first match, defeating Ghana 2 goals to 1. In the grand scheme of things, this is a small footnote, only another example of the wisdom found in Jesus.
Didn’t he say, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven?” Soccer rises from one of the two fundamentals in aggressive play: a ball to kick or throw and chase. The other basic element is a stick or club to use for swinging at a ball, or a puck. Playing with a ball is a sign pointing to the kingdom of liberation and peace.
While Jesus didn’t explicitly make that connection, isn’t it obvious to us?
Boys finding a ball will make a game of it. When they become men, a ball will be their strong channel to childhood again, and they won’t need war as an outlet for their energy. This was shown dramatically early in the First World War. At Christmas of 1914, the German troops in one line of trenches in northeast France and the French and English in the opposing trenches stopped shooting in some sectors and began singing Christmas hymns.
As troops warily came out of their trenches and approached each other in the No Man’s Land between them, soccer balls also came out and spontaneous kick-arounds followed. Men of war turned into fellow children of God around a shared faith and a ball.
As this is being read, the United States may no longer be a factor in the World Cup. Our soccer players had to face some of the strongest teams before even getting out of the tournament’s early phase. There probably have been losses.
Losing a game doesn’t kill you, though. In the democracy of sport, everyone knows losing and understands that another game follows, another invitation to let out the child within. Every game is another invitation to the joy of winning certainly, but first and more fundamental, the spontaneous joy of movement and engagement with others that always makes us smile when we see it in children playing.
When we see it happening among grown men, be grateful for soccer, and for baseball and cricket and basketball and lacrosse and hockey and rugby. Be grateful even for football. Despite the extreme violence of that game, it still keeps the ball at its center. We still cheer and celebrate and hope in peace. War is put aside.
What about girls and women? That they can enjoy the engagement and exuberance and challenge of these games is obvious. The opening of more sports to women is certainly a welcome development. But it is not as necessary for them as it is for boys and men.
Even if we evolve in the direction of more similarity between men and women, boys will still have to separate from their mothers and find an identity that gives them a separate, distinct, other value. If we don’t want that otherness to be violence and war, as it has been through history, we need to value the special place of physical games and sport in the male world.
Women have access to a joy of fulfillment in childbirth that men can never match. If men are more intense about playing games, and getting something important out of them, it’s because they deeply need to seek heroism, to birth greatness in their own way.
Thank God for the games that enable them to do that without killing each other.