There are some things about the World Cup of Soccer that can be predicted with near precision. Some are good and some are bad. And they will play out in Russia over the month-long extravaganza of sport and media fascination.
Let’s start with the bad things that likely will happen:
- A highly regarded team will be eliminated in the early rounds, much to the disappointment of their fans and sports bookies.
- There will be an incident during a game between players of countries that recently have been at war.
- There will be an incident during a game between players of different religions.
- At least one player will be sent home after he is involved in a drug scandal.
- There will be a security incident at one of the stadiums that is the result of a dissident group having nothing to do with soccer.
- A normally sure-handed goalie will miss an easy save and fear for his life at the hands of his own country’s fans.
- Some star player will be goaded into biting, kicking or slapping an opponent and get tossed out of a match.
- Players of a team that wins a critical match will get carried away with the celebration and cause a scene in a local drinking establishment.
- Ultra-fans of two countries will engage in a street brawl and end up in a less-than-stylish Russian jail.
- At least one person will be murdered.
That’s the bad news. But let’s not dwell on that and move to the good side:
- Some underdog team will advance into the final rounds and maybe even win the whole thing.
- A player nobody ever heard of will rise to stardom.
- Teams from countries that have been at war will display on the field the bonds of true sportsmanship, even friendship.
- You will see some of the most remarkable shots and saves in the history of the sport.
- Famous stars will visit kids in a hospital.
- A Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim really will walk into a bar and socialize in peace and joy.
- The vast majority of fans from the country that wins it all will celebrate in happy and non-violent fashion.
- Most fans attending the various matches will behave like mature adults.
- A superstar will do a television interview and downplay his skill, giving credit to his teammates.
- A player who has a key role in a victory will tell the media it was all by God’s Grace that he did well.
I like the good stuff better than the bad stuff. And when the bad stuff happens – as it almost certainly will – we need to look for the better part.
(An aside: I realize some readers – especially those of European or Latin American persuasion – may insist that the sport I’m talking about is football. But I’m American and can’t get out of my mind that football is played with an oblong ball and players use their hands. Mea culpa.)
A World Cup is a large-scale version of what we experience in our daily Catholic lives: a struggle between good and evil. We see it in the workplace, where some people acts like saints but all can be sinners.
We see it in our families, especially during stressful times like illness, death, unemployment or troubled kids. Some people we least expect to be heroes rise to the occasion; others fall far short of our expectations.
Soccer and the Catholic Church have some things in common. For one, both are present in virtually every corner of the world. (Sorry baseball, curling, cricket, and bowling fans – your sport isn’t universal).
The other thing this sport and the faith have in common is hope.
A soccer match lasts 90 minutes (more with stoppage time). Despite perhaps dozens of shots, few end up I the net. But players keep dribbling down the pitch and kicking at the goal. They fail more than they succeed, but they don’t give up hope.
As Catholics, we know we are sinners. We start each day with the intent to live our faith to perfection – and we never quick succeed. But we continue to try, know that God is forgiving. We have hope.
Soccer stars and sinners both fail. But they have the hope of succeeding. The goal is always ahead, the way paved with God’s grace.