It's been four years since the last World Cup tournament. Starting this week, soccer's worldwide contest - featuring countries from all corners of the globe - takes place in France.
The marvelous individual skills, the masterly teamwork, the stamina and rugged perseverance that identify the best of soccer, are captivating to watch. That's why millions of people will either travel to France or else stay glued to their TV screens for a month. Of course, everyone wants his or her national team to win the tournament if it has qualified for the finals. But the whole crowd can cheer on anyone whose performance is winning in its grace or power - even if it is not their team that's benefiting.
There is a great deal that's beautiful in soccer. The game, though, has also had its ugly side. Some of the most memorable moments in past tournaments haven't involved skillful play and glorious goals, but instead vicious marking, aggressive fouling, and cheating, marring the performances of individuals and even, on occasion, entire teams.
Do we need to resign ourselves to that during this World Cup? It might seem to be just part of the game. But it doesn't need to be. Some soccer players, like England's former goal-scorer Gary Lineker, have shown it is possible to get through a top-level career in soccer without ever being cautioned, let alone sent off, by a referee. What an example!
Watching from the stands or from their living rooms, individual spectators can play a part in keeping the World Cup clean. They can pray for the ability to discern the true nature of man as God's idea. They can come to know that what they understand to be spiritually true of God's creation is true for all the players competing this year.
The Scriptures say we're made in the image and likeness of God (see Gen. 1:26). God is good. There isn't viciousness or deceit in the son or daughter of God's making, then. And soccer players are truly included in that God-created identity, as we all are. The spiritual expression of God can certainly be tough - boundlessly strong, in fact, reflecting God's infinite power. But God, divine Truth, is also reflected in full fairness and honesty. And God's creation is completely under the authority of His supreme law of good.
An experience I had in a "friendly" game of soccer - one that was getting progressively less friendly by the minute - indicated to me that prayer has a valid, helpful place in keeping the peace on a soccer field. A player on my team was a hefty chap with a forceful but fair way of pushing forward and scoring goals. On the other team was a player who decided that the way to stop him was to hack him down unfairly. The more he did this, the more my teammate seemed set to explode in a retaliatory rage.
Prayer was something I had only recently been discovering, but I decided to try it out in this situation. Earlier in the game I had pulled my leg while running for the ball, and as I started to pray, I recalled a sentence written by Mary Baker Eddy. She discovered Christian Science, which explains how Christ Jesus healed the sick and sinning through God's law of good. The sentence was from a poem: "Seek holy thoughts and heavenly strain,/ That make men one in love remain" ("Poems," Pg. 6).
While the word strain here is used in the musical sense, I enjoyed thinking of it literally in relation to my injury! I realized I could discern in prayer that "holy thoughts and heavenly strain" are all that omnipotent God has caused to be, even where opposite thoughts and actions appeared to be. I also recognized that I could mentally accept that these holy and heavenly elements were present and able to make men - including those on opposite teams in this soccer game - "one in love remain."
This prayer was apparently effective. The explosion never occurred. The fouler on the other team started employing tough but fair tackling to mark his man, and by the end of the game the two guys were even laughing together. My strained leg also recovered. I had sought harmony through prayer. I'd glimpsed the presence of harmony through spiritual understanding. And harmony had been established on the playing field.
We can bring more spiritual vision to our World Cup viewing, and support the best in all the players (and the crowds). God is supreme, on and off the field.