Soccer and the Sublime in the Shadow of Apartheid

Any student of theology can fall in love with the World Cup. And every four years, football fans like me annoy everyone around them by speaking endlessly of the World Cup as the most momentous of religious events.

The World Cup in its pure state is not much different from the theologizing of Christmas; it is artistry embodied in flesh—a kind of divine incarnation. When one watches a highlight reel of Brazilian soccer hero Ronaldinho, words fall short but grace permeates. I think to myself, “now that’s what it means to operate out of freedom.” It’s like watching every divine superlative that describes the ineffable embodied. Yes, it’s grace incarnate on a soccer pitch. Top-tier athletes make too easy the writing of hagiography.

The likes of Ronaldinho (though tragically left out of Brazil’s lineup this year by the villain coach Dunga), Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo display what make the World Cup a religious experience, a place where the profane becomes sacred.

The World As We Know It is About to Change.”

It all started months ago. ESPN began running their thirty-second commercials for the tournament. You may have seen it. U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” plays over the rolling images of international footballers in moments of rapture. The Edge’s epic guitar riff complements the moment. ESPN knows what that threaded riff does to people like me when accompanying emotionally piqued football highlights. Over the top of that, the pop prophet Bono speaks: “If history means anything, the world as we know it is about to change.” Melodrama? Maybe, but so are many of the Episcopal Masses that I’ve attended.

One of the things that make this quadrennial tournament religious is the tip-of-the-tongue experience you go through as an observer. The ineffable takes place before your eyes: 20 crisp, well-crafted passes to a swung cross to a divining header finish. The net ripples. Elation ensues for some; agony for the others. It is a brilliance that toys with physics, captivates the senses and provides purpose (if only momentarily), vanquishing concern for all other responsibilities in life—a moment of honesty, a microcosm of the human drama. Some of us, those who may or may not have cried while reading Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, untuck all our emotions for moments like these.

David Foster Wallace wrote eloquently about the sense of the ineffable in watching Roger Federer play tennis. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports,” he writes, “but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.” “Kinetic beauty,” he calls it. Human beings on the sporting stage showcase the infinite in the finite, human beings seeming to bend physical law with complete awareness, reconciling the fact that they operate in bodies: bodies that fall, fail, and break but remain rife with potential. Foster Wallace explicates the meaning of observing such physical performance.

“Great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important—they make up for a lot.”

The idea of “religion as feeling” resonates in this context. Even with 90 minutes counting down on the referee’s watch, “a sense and taste for the infinite” impresses itself. The game feels deeply personal that way. You dream of possibility, enwrapped in the process. Each minute an opportunity for equalization, victory or loss; yet each minute fleeting all the same.

Seeing the human body at work on a football pitch, however, can also be pedestrian, taking place year-round on every continent, every zip code. It is a game, proven by its global appeal, which defies socioeconomic standing. Therein lies further emphasis of the World Cup’s importance, too: the world stage. Marxism has long been called the world’s secular religion, but a football fan knows economic ideology pales in comparison to the world’s devotion to football. John Carlin of Time magazine is right when he says the game transcends all race, creeds, and tongues.

In that, the student of theology revels in the grandeur, emotion, and beauty of a clear moment of human interconnectedness. It is the student of ethics, however, that lets her eyes wander further beyond the pitch. With that drift the existential beauty becomes more complicated, potentially tragic.

The Long Shadow of Apartheid

Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon will get more eyes than most this year. He’s a player of flair, lithe and lethal around the net. Born in Africa, he took advantage of his athletic skill to move to wealthy Europe at age 14, where the best footballers are treated like gods and paid even better. He’s the highest paid player in Italian club football, but but when he was traded from Real Madrid to Barcelona he told the press corps, “I mean to run like a black man so I can live like a white one.”

This year the tournament takes place in South Africa. It’s imagined to be that country’s global moment of redemption to overshadow the long shadow of apartheid. President Zuma sees 2010 as South Africa’s most significant year since 1994, the year apartheid ended. This could be the case. A tilted economy remains in South Africa (as in the entire globalized economy), setting in unreasonable and unnecessary suffering, but hope remains. These are Mandela’s children. A new cultural memory is building to replace the old. This could be the time for the beautiful game to show a people resurrected. But lest we run away with unbridled optimism, there are the words of Alexandra Fuller to consider. In her profile on South Africa, recently published in National Geographic, she writes, “But scratch the surface of any community, and one way or another there it is, the A-word.” Can the beautiful game make apartheid history simply history? Could Bono be right in stating that “One game changes everything”?

If we glorify the game so easily we miss the point.

Theologian Karl Rahner understood worship as a representation of the liturgy of life. The World Cup as the microcosm of life works similarly, letting in the bad with the good. The beautiful game is just that: beautiful—but it is also the platform to see a world less so. It is a human event that allows for any number of sins from the calendar of human frailty. You can bask in the craft of Leonel Messi, who manipulates the ball like a marionette to puppet; but you cannot be free of the ego of coach, villain, and Saint, Diego Maradona, pacing the sideline, looking for an opportunity to abscond with the limelight.

The glaring example for this year’s tournament comes in the form of a stadium. Stadiums, like cathedrals, intensify the experience. No one steps into that atmosphere without having a spiritual chord struck. Samba drums inspire dance; the long, narrow vuvuzela horns provoke the possibility of deafness; and waves of people universalize in a moment the personal affection for the game. But there exists a stadium in this tournament that will be remember more for human pride than the beautiful game played within it. Mbombela Stadium (literally meaning “many people together in a small space”) in the city of Nelspruit cost $137 million to build. Yet many in the area go without clean water, toilets, or electricity. Only four games will be played there, a total of 6 hours of the beautiful game, and once those games finish no other professional team patrons the city.

Disgusted, Richard Spoor, a lawyer who handled some of the litigious wrangling, said its sole use will be for politicians to make speeches. The stadium represents the worst of the World Cup, or rather the manipulation of it, groping at the money and power that accompanies it. A tempest of ill-natured activity abounds: murders, further death threats, back-door deals, and fundamental greed, all at the expense of locals. Which brings us to the paradox of it all.

The tournament starts today. For good or ill, the tournament’s eminence has vanquished concerns of these less noble attributes, even for the locals of Nelspruit. The game will unify people, and mollify hardship for the present. It will not end it, but it provides a respite. Some might call it tragic delusion—opiate of the masses. (To my American readers, it may all sound like nonsense, like an atheist reading the myths of the Bible.) Those indicting fingers would find the wrong culprit, however. The game is not to blame. It, like religion, possesses a beauty that humanizes. It does not whitewash tragedy but it does provide transcendence from it, and at its best meaning-making for it. It mysteriously wields us together and separates us all at once. We place our hopes in the efforts of 11 men on a pitch, competing against an opposing 11, and in the end we are thankful just to be a part of the experience.