How could you set up stadium events in the heart of the Muslim world, one border away from Mecca, where the leading actors get to witness to Jesus, watched by over half the world’s population?
Answer: stage the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Despite all the controversies surrounding this location, coverage of this year’s World Cup now in the quarter finals stage cannot avoid live time presentations of players from many different teams overtly giving thanks to God for goals scored… or simply the privilege of being part of the event.
That became clear in the opening game when the host team played Ecuador whose captain and striker Enner Valencia scored twice. On both occasions the whole team dropped to their knees in a circle, pointing and looking to heaven in thanks to God.
A widely-circulated video showed Ecuador team players praying in a hotel room. “We always do it, in a group, before and after the games,” one of the team explained, adding in his own brand of English: “We are all very believers. At the end, regardless of the result, we thank (God) for leaving the field well and not having hurt anyone.”
Western commentators have become somewhat accustomed to such expressions of faith on football fields in recent years but still respond with certain awkwardness and surprise at their intensity and sincerity. In the western world, especially Europe, such professions of faith by players from all continents challenge lingering views of Christianity as a waning white man’s faith condemned to the margins of history.
Centre of gravity
To those of us suffering from ‘euro-tunnelvision’, viewing the world as if Europe was the centre of all that mattered, the now-familiar sight of non-European players pointing to the sky after scoring goals is a reminder that the centre of gravity of Christianity has moved from the West to the majority world. The African Christian population, for example, is estimated to have now reached over 600 million, well beyond the total population of the European Union. The exponential growth of pentecostal Christianity in Latin America has also influenced the Catholic Church there and is reflected in the testimonies of some of the continent’s leading football players.
Many of the European players who are outspoken about their faith have migrant roots. In the Dutch team alone, Denzel Dumfries (Aruba/Inter Milan), Jurriën Timber (Curacao/Ajax), Coady Gapko (Togo/PSV), Georginio Wijnaldum (Surinam/Liverpool), and Memphis Depay (Ghana/Barcelona) pray together and share their Christian faith on the field.
Gapko scored three goals during the group phase, and after scoring against Senegal posted Psalm 121:1 on Instagram: ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.’ Memphis often points to the sky in his goal and win celebrations and writes on social media, ‘all the glory to God.’ In thankfulness to God for his talent, he has set up a foundation in Ghana to help blind and deaf children.
Other believers in action in Qatar include Olivier Giroud, (France/AC Milan) who recently guest-edited a Christian magazine, campaigned for Open Doors and had tattooed on his arm: Latijn Dominus regit me et nihil mihi deerit, (The Lord is my shepherd, I’ll not want); teammate Antoine Griezmann who also wears his faith on his tattooed arm; English players Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, USA captain Christian Pulisic, Edinson Cavani of Uruguay, and more.
Leading Argentina in a sensational narrow victory against the Dutch last evening was Lionel Messi, for many the GOAT – the Greatest Of All Time. He knows he’s not, and has a tattoo of a thorn-crowned Jesus on his upper right arm. While not vocal about his Catholic faith, he certainly doesn’t hide it.
Both teams playing in the equally dramatic quarter-final earlier in the evening were captained by professing believers and Chelsea teammates, Croatian Mateo Kovacic and Brazilian Thiago Silva. Silva’s Brazilian teammate Neymar Jr, currently one of the world’s most famous footballers, is a pentecostal, tithes his income to the church, often wears a headband reading ‘100% Jesus’, and testifies that there is more to life than football.
Just as well, after last night’s upset defeat of the favourites through penalties by Croatia. ‘Life only makes sense if our highest goal is to serve Christ!’ Neymar tells his fans.
Till next week,