When I lived in Uruguay, I took a trip to see my friends in Argentina during the 2006 World Cup. It was thrilling to live in South America during the Cup, to be among people who loved the sport and were devoted to their team. We went to a local joint to watch the Argentina-Germany game. In a heart-breaking match, Germany advanced on a penalty shoot- out after being tied 1-1 during regulation time. The folks in Argentina were totally devastated. On the streets after the game, I, with my blond hair and blue eyes, got accused of being German on multiple occasions. It felt a little intimidating. These people take their soccer very seriously.
“No, no, I’m not German. I’m American. I was cheering for Argentina!”
It was the one time in Argentina that being from the United States just about saved me life.
After living among soccer enthusiasts, I was not at all surprised to see that Pope Francis had something to say about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. After all, he came to the Vatican from Argentina.
“To win, we must overcome individualism, selfishness, all forms of racism, intolerance and manipulation of people,” he said. He said being “greedy” in football, as in life, is an obstacle.
“Let nobody turn their back on society and feel excluded!” he said. “No to segregation! No to racism!”
“Sport is not only a form of entertainment, but also — and above all I would say — a tool to communicate values that promote the good that is in humans and help build a more peaceful and fraternal society,” he said. (READ THE FULL HUFFINGTON POST ARTICLE)
Historically, sports have been at the forefront of social change. The influence of the global athletic stage is not to be discounted. There have been athletes so talented, so enticing to watch, they have broken open social movements: Jackie Robinson, Mohammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Tony Smith and John Carlos, Billy Jean King, Magic Johnson and Gareth Thomas to name a few. A victory in the sporting arena can feel like a victory for an entire marginalized people. Athletics becomes a staging for life itself. And soccer is the world’s sport. I know from being welcomed into soccer games in El Salvador, Uruguay and Kenya that soccer is a universal language. Any patch of ground can be a pitch. Any two objects can make a goal. You don’t even need a ball. I’ve met amazing soccer players all over the world who started out as kids practicing with nothing more than some paper tied up with a string. Soccer has the power of universality. Maybe that’s why Pope Francis has such a large collection of soccer jerseys. And why he is hoping that the World Cup can be a celebration of solidarity.
If there is a sport that has world power, it’s soccer. And it’s biggest, most strategic stage to do some good is the World Cup. How interesting that Pope Francis knows that, cares, and is using the event to remind us what is truly important.