While Blighty has wilted this past month, happily drought conditions have not extended to the sporting world. The Open golf championship is underway in Carnoustie, Scotland, hot on the heels of Wimbledon. But I personally am still nursing fond memories of the World Cup.
The broad aspects of what make World Cup football captivating are simple: a deep investment of hope and expectation among all the nations for their home team; mounting tension as the tournament moves from group stages to the high stakes knock-out matches; the fans, punditry…and not least, the drama, conflict and episodes of sheer artistry in individual contests. With good reason it is called the beautiful game. And I’m intrigued by the wider ripples and resonances of this beauty.
The top ten goals of the tournament are always a big draw for me. Among my favourites are those where the ball is set up seemingly innocuously, slowly rolls, and then from nowhere is rocketed by a striker into the back of the net. Especially good if it’s from distance. And included this year was Belgium’s glorious last minute goal to “break Japanese hearts” and send the plucky northern European team into the quarter finals. A magnificent and beautiful piece of team work: goalkeeper Courtois’ easy corner catch and smooth roll out of the ball, then shunted up the park in a lightening break, switched to a winger, then back into the box for Nacer Chadli’s deadly strike. Stunning.
What I’m interested in here is, can the pleasure we get from such moments of magic open our imagination to anything of deeper significance? Consider the simple word ‘goal’ – we use it to reference a whole range of aims and purposes in life. Personally, reflection on a moment like the Belgium goal leads me to connect it with wider dimensions of teamwork, purpose, harmony and achievement, not least in the spiritual realm. Christian faith maintains that the church, the body of Christ, is God’s primary channel for accomplishing His mission of reconciling a broken, fallen world to Himself. And indeed whenever people work well together to accomplish a common purpose, they experience a bit of the thrill of that Belgian brilliance.
Of course, you may think I’m talking nonsense, that football is just men running around kicking a pig’s bladder and that’s it. But if it’s true that we have ‘eternity in our hearts’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11), then football, like so many things in ordinary life, can speak of deeper realities if we allow it to. As England fans experienced again this year (though at least with a sliver of future hope this time), such is the game’s hold on many of us that national defeat can produce crushing disappointment. But opening my eyes to the greater truths it mirrors and points to, helps me live with a greater sense of joy and hope.
To quote Lennon, you may say that I’m a dreamer. But in the spirit of the topic – well, I’m not the only one.