A Short Theology of Soccer

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We need a theology of soccer. There is something sacramental about it.

I vividly remember my evening in Bethlehem during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. That day we had entered the Church of the Nativity, alongside crowds of pilgrims from many countries, united in devotion to Christ. After the church closed and the crowds left, a group of Bethlehem boys began a game of soccer in the public square outside the church. I was sitting in the square, contemplating the day, and the boys insisted I join in.

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Our game of soccer offered another kind of unity. Though we did not speak the same language, we understood the language of the game. On our makeshift cobblestone soccer pitch, we came into relationship with each another: passing the ball, offering chances, encouraging shots, respecting skill amidst friendly competition. Soccer made a bridge between human difference, near the place Christ bridged the difference of God and man.

Nationalism and Globalism

Soccer began in mid-19th century England, as a game played by the students of elite private schools. The rules went through multiple stages of development that ultimately produced two distinct sports: Soccer and Rugby. And then in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, soccer spread, carried from England to its imperial territories and beyond. Soccer is now the most popular sport in the world, counting some 250 million players and more than a billion spectators. The World Cup, begun in 1930 and held every four years, is the most watched sporting event, surpassing even the Olympics.

Anglicanism is less populous than soccer, but shares a similar trajectory. Though it had spread alongside British colonization in previous centuries, the more rapid growth of Anglicanism began in the 19th century, alongside the British Empire and then beyond. The formal organization of the Anglican Communion through the Lambeth Conference happened in a similar time frame to the organization of international Soccer. There are now some 80 million Anglicans around the world, and a billion spectators tune in to the Anglican services surrounding the Royal Family.

The history of Soccer and Anglicanism witness to the dynamics of nationalism and globalism.  Both began in a single nation, and both have powerful national expressions in the form of national teams and national churches. Yet in the theology of soccer, as in the theology of the church, alongside national autonomy there exists a global interdependence. If one nation seeks to change the rules of the game, that affects the ability of other nations to continue to play together. Soccer has flourished by maintaining a global authority (FIFA) which sets the international rules of the game. By contrast, the global authority in Anglicanism, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has failed to enforce or even to teach the rules, which explains the current crisis in the Anglican Communion.

For the Poor and Uninitiated

Why does soccer spread so effectively around the world? One reason is that the game is accessible, even to the poor or to the uninitiated. You don’t need a lot of equipment, and you can learn the rules as you play.  In the theology of soccer, anyone is welcome to join in.

The Christian faith also spreads as it is accessible to the poor and uninitiated. It does not require elaborate trappings. Church buildings and vestments and liturgical implements are good, just as stadiums and uniforms and cleats are good. But you don’t need any of those to play soccer on the street. You can learn and play the game before you have all the things.

This is also the Biblical pattern. Heaven has vestments and incense, trained singing and formal feasting (Revelation 5, 19). Yet when Jesus came amongst us, the gospels speak of his flesh, not his vestments (John 1). He knew the incense of the temple but also the stench of the tomb (John 10, 11). He accepted the rudimentary faith of the leper, the halting prayer of the disciples, and ate with sinners and tax collectors (Matthew 6, 8, 9). He ministered to the people in the streets, not requiring that they know the rules before he loved them and taught them of God.

But Jesus did teach the rules. He taught how to live and to pray, and he told the leper to worship in the Temple (Matthew 8). On his last night he taught the disciples how to feast, and it included singing (Matthew 26). Just as it is no favor to teach the game of soccer without sharing the rules, it is no favor to teach the faith without sharing God’s law and his mode of worship. To flourish in life or in soccer, you have to learn the rules.

Feet and Theology

The most important rule in soccer is that players cannot touch the ball with their hands. This rule shifts the focus of the game from the hands to the feet, for which reason most of the world calls the game foot-ball. In America we call it soccer, because we have another sport called “Football,” a variation of Rugby, which we play with our hands. We Americans are funny.

Christ also brought attention to human feet, most powerfully at his last supper. He washed the feet of the disciples, not only to show an example of humble service, but also to mark them off as a priestly people (John 13). And of course Jesus would give those feet a lot of work to do. The same feet he washed, he later sent, to travel from Jerusalem to Judea and all the ends of the earth (Luke 24). It was a big mission field for those feet to traverse.

Like the 11 faithful apostles sent to a big mission field, so 11 players are sent onto a big soccer field, some 360 feet long. On the pitch they run back and forth, side to side, in a kind of dance with each other and the moving ball. The players work together, passing the ball and creating opportunities in the shared desire to score a goal. The most glorious goals come from brilliant assists.  In the theology of soccer, teamwork points to the eternal dance between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the course of a complete game, the average player runs 7 miles. 7 miles is also the distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus, the journey on which the resurrected Jesus met two of his disciples and explained how the Old Testament pointed to him (Luke 24). Jesus probably interpreted Isaiah on that journey, and he may have referenced Isaiah’s ode to beautiful feet: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news” (Isaiah 52:7). Similarly, George Bernard Shaw said that “Footballers think with their feet,” and quoting him HE Bates called the sport “the most beautiful game in the world.” The phrase stuck, and now soccer is known as “The Beautiful Game.”

Fouls and the Fall

But not all is well on the Edenic soccer pitch. Alongside our 11 is another team, an opposing side, often subtle and sly. And though friendly competition is beautiful, the contest can turn ugly, and the players can break the rules. The players often seem to be asking – to paraphrase our tempter – “Did FIFA really say you cannot touch?” (Genesis 3:1). Even when they do not touch the ball, soccer players do touch each other, much more than they should, fouling and forcing each other to fall.

And fall they do, whether truly fouled or faking. The great shame of professional soccer is how much time the players spend on the ground. Some players are notorious, and shameless, for pretending agony in pursuit of a free shot. This false witness is so common that players and spectators alike have become desensitized, that real injury takes too long to be recognized.  In the theology of soccer, fouls and false fouls are the original sin. Like the creation itself, soccer is both beautiful and fallen.

The Goalkeeper

Only one player is allowed to touch the ball: the goalkeeper. His role is to defend against the attack, to block the darting shots of the enemy. Thus the keeper is the Christ figure on the field, the last line of defense. When everyone else has failed or fallen down, the goalkeeper alone can save the team. But the keeper’s role is also dangerous. Where all players can be injured in their feet, the keeper like Christ can be injured in his feet, hands, and side.

One of the most tragic moments in soccer is when a team fouls inside the penalty box, allowing the enemy a free penalty shot against an innocent goalkeeper. This of course is what we humans do all the time, drawn into a foul by our enemy, giving him an easy shot to score and to defeat us. We even brought this upon the Lord who blesses and keeps up, our perfect Keeper Jesus Christ. For when he took flesh, he also took all of our fouls upon himself. He held out his arms, helplessly, as the enemy blasted a free kick against his body.

To all outward appearances, Jesus seemed to be defeated. Driven into the net, he was entangled in the cords of Sheol (Psalm 18:5). But God would not abandon his soul to Sheol, or let his holy one see destruction (Psalm 16:10).

Stoppage Time

A soccer game officially runs for 90 minutes. But the game does not end at the 90 minute mark. After that point, the official adds “stoppage time,” a variable interval for additional play, based upon the time play had stopped during the first 90 minutes. So for example, if a player has been injured, and it took five minutes to resolve the injury, the official will add five minutes of stoppage time. Moreover, stoppage time is not regulated by a clock. Though the official may give a rough estimate of the time he will allow the game to continue, no one but the official knows when he will blow the whistle. Not even the goalkeeper knows the time of the end.

Thus it is an especially dramatic moment, when, during stoppage time in a close game, the goalkeeper will actually leave the net and join the attack, seeking to change the outcome of the game. In rare cases, the goalkeeper himself will even shoot and score.

In the case of our Keeper, Jesus Christ, it was a singular moment in history when he left the net of Sheol. Death could not keep the Keeper, and defeat would not be the final word (Acts 2:24). Instead, he rose in triumph over death, tricking the enemy and retaking the field. He forgave the fouls of his people, and then he went on offense. The Keeper became the Striker, marshaling his team and sending them forward, to play without fear or fouling, and promising that the defenses of the enemy would not prevail.

Published on

December 3, 2022

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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