What We Can Learn From the World Cup
The world’s biggest sports championship shines a spotlight on the human capacity for achievement! It can also reveal a hole in our lives that only God can fill.
When Brazil and Croatia take the field on June 12 in São Paulo, they will kick off the greatest single-sport event in the world. “An estimated 715.1 million people watched the final match of the 2006 World Cup held in Germany and the 2010 event in South Africa was broadcast to 204 countries on 245 different channels,” according to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). This far outstrips the 111.5 million who watched the 2014 Super Bowl, the biggest U.S. sports championship.
The World Cup is more than just a football (or soccer, as it’s called in some countries) tournament. It’s big business, especially for the host countries, which shoulder an enormous investment. Brazil has spent about $14 billion in organizing and providing the necessary infrastructure for this year’s World Cup.
Key decision makers and millions of fans obviously feel it’s worth it, although in Brazil, where poverty and socioeconomic problems abound, such enormous expenditures angered many people from all social classes. For several months, enraged protesters raised the threat of actually canceling the mega event! However, after receiving promises for improvements to their quality of life, many of the demonstrations calmed down.
And, apparently, any discomfort Brazilians have to go through will be tempered by the simple fact that, as in much of the world, football is more than a sport to Brazilians—it is their culture, their idol and, some say, even their god.
A little history
People like to play games, of course, and football in one form or another has ancient roots. Its rules are simple; it can be played almost anywhere; and it’s accessible to people of any income level.
After football became an official sport in the 1908 London Olympics, it gained such interest around the world that, in 1930, FIFA held the first international championship in Uruguay. Since then, it has become wildly popular in most countries, and for about a month every four years the World Cup captivates football fans around the world. This short period of great sporting excitement has even occasionally brought periods of relative peace among participating countries as they turn their attention to the games.
As soon as one World Cup ends, nations begin looking to the next, each dreaming of the glory that goes with being world champion. In 2007, for example, 197 countries signed up for the first round of qualifications for the 2010 championship!
This year, the 32 final teams have qualified. The tickets for the most important matches are virtually sold out, and millions are anxiously waiting for the competition to finally begin. And come Sunday, July 13, the citizens of one of those nations entered will be euphorically celebrating their victory.
What can we learn from the World Cup?
For people who believe in God and view the events of life through the lens of the Bible, considering an event like the World Cup offers a number of interesting observations.
1. Sports give a view of what can be.
During this worldwide tournament that stretches over many months, overall you usually see healthy competition and relative harmony between the teams.
Of course, examples of poor sportsmanship and attempts to fool the officials crop up, confirming what the Bible says about how human nature tends toward doing the wrong and struggling with the right. We are not naturally peaceful and harmonious (Romans 8:7; Jeremiah 17:9). But to excel in football, and sports in general, requires a discipline and teamwork that does bring out good things in humanity.
For example, succeeding in sports requires athletes to have self-control. Thus, the best sportsmen and women are usually honest, disciplined and peaceful, which explains why sporting championships can be times of relative unity, peace and harmony among participants and the countries that support them.
The Bible reveals that God made us in His own image (Genesis 1:26), with incredible potential (Hebrews 2:6-10). And although humanity rejected God’s tree of life, opting instead to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17; 3:6), sometimes the good does prevail, which accounts for our expressions of kindness, harmony, unity and peace. When we make a conscious effort—even with our limitations—to express good character and attitudes, we achieve greater things.
If, through the discipline of sports, human beings are capable of achieving peace and good will with others, how much more will we be able to have peace when we reach the potential God created for us? How much further will we get when we have His Holy Spirit, not our unstable human nature, guiding and controlling our lives?
And, even more, what will life be like when Jesus Christ returns to rule the earth? You see, He’s going to usher in a time when peace will fill the earth—not only a limited kind of peace, but an everlasting peace.
One of the beautiful pictures for the future God gives to us even uses playing games as a descriptor: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets’” (Zechariah 8:4-5).
2. The World Cup shows the importance of having a high goal.
Starting years before the actual championship, during the World Cup’s qualification rounds, every team dreams of being a part of the tournament and holding that FIFA world champion trophy for the next four years. The winning team’s reward of millions of dollars to split among its players also creates a huge incentive.
But perhaps the greatest prize of all is the fame, prestige and thrill that come from winning the world championship. Even just participating in the World Cup gives all players fame and recognition that will always follow them.
But, as we see in the Bible, an even better—eternal—prize awaits anyone who, with the help of God, sets his eyes on the crown of life and does whatever it takes to attain it.
As the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, whose society revered athletic events, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
3. Football and other obsessions can highlight a void in our lives.
People who love football—fans and players alike—are almost always thinking about it. As soon as one World Cup ends, they start preparing for the next one.
And besides the next World Cup, they have many other local, national and international championships to fill their interests as well.
Filling the void
Football is just one thing that millions of people become fanatical about. The truth is, nearly everyone grabs on to some kind of activity or attraction that fills a void that all of us seem to have inside. We all search for something meaningful, something bigger in life, but most don’t know what it is.
Although sports may help fill the void, it can never be completely filled with football or anything physical. It is a spiritual void that needs to be filled.
The satisfaction obtained by watching the World Cup firsthand or even being part of the winning team may be great, but it is only emotional, and it’s only momentary. When the euphoria subsides, as it inevitably does, we realize that it does not bring the happiness we were really looking for. The hole is still there.
Sports or other physical interests can be quite beneficial indeed, but they are never enough to fulfill us in spiritual terms. Again, quoting Paul: “For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).
Promise of a better world
The spiritual emptiness we have inside—like it or not—can only be filled with spiritual things. God, His spiritual laws and the practice of those laws can fill the spiritual void in every human being.
Jesus Christ will return to this earth and open the way for everyone to fill that spiritual emptiness. The time will soon come when all of humanity will lead meaningful, peaceful lives. They will be healthy and will enjoy the physical and social benefits of sports. But in that time also, athletes and all human beings will be taught to obey God’s laws, and then there will be real, lasting peace and harmony all around the world.
For more about filling the spiritual void in our lives, download our free booklet Change Your Life! And for more about the wonderful world that will come with the return of Christ, read the free booklet The Mystery of the Kingdom.
This article appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Discern.