It would seem that God’s gift to Brazil, this year, was the FIFA World Cup.
Not the Cup itself, however, nor even the pleasure of hosting the event, which finally ends tomorrow, praise the Lord.
Rather, for Brazilians, it was the experience of watching – it would seem the whole country was glued in, along with much of the world – as the national team, in which a huge emotional investment had been made, was obliterated by the team from Germany.
I caught part of the game myself, on a big-screen TV in a Toronto pub.
Under normal circumstances, it is inconceivable that I would be caught in such a compromising position. To my mind, pub: good. Beer: good. Camaraderie: good. Getting off work for the afternoon: good. . . .But somehow the big-screen TV puts the lie to everything.
From a shopkeeper, I had just learned that the Germans were up by five goals, only part way into the first half. This was unbelievable, or at least, implausible. An unworthy curiosity got my cat.
Understand, I wasn’t actually rooting for the Jerries. But I was perhaps sinfully indulging a form of Schadenfreude, in witnessing “some German engineering,” as one pub customer put it, “passing through a samba party.”
(There is some religion coming, but gentle reader must wait for it.)
Blowout football games, or any other sort of games for that matter, contribute to the development of lightness of head. I recall a soccer match from school, way back in a previous century. Our side beat theirs, 10-0. Though I did not watch it, I gathered it had not been pretty.
But I remember a schoolboy who did play. He struck me as a “holy innocent,” with a rich and droll sense of humor, of which he was himself unaware. He said that the coach had told them at half-time to stop at nine goals, because, “Double digits would be rude.” Therefore, he said, our team had played “very dainty” in the last thirty minutes, after the ninth had been scored. So how had it come to ten?
“It couldn’t be helped. The poor blighters put one in their own goal.”
My sympathy for the poor blighters was engaged. In this case, too, I felt rather sorry for the poor Brazilians. They would have to be quite disordered, indeed, to enjoy that sort of humiliation. And yet, as even today we distantly remember, pride goeth before a fall.
“Football,” “soccer,” or “kickball,” as I have come to call it, under the tutelage of a friend in Houston (an American football chauvinist for Texas A&M), may involve skills. I noticed the German genius for “headbirths” as I call them – for directing the ball with their heads not their feet. I was modestly respectful for the style of such superstars in the past as Pelé of Brazil, Maradona of Argentina, Eusébio of Portugal, George Best of England.
It’s just a game
I am further persuaded that, as in other sports, there are fans who truly appreciate such genius, connoisseurs who applaud it even when the player is on the other team.
There is another factor, not so much on the field as in the bleachers, in major professional sports. It is at its worst in international competition. It is the goon-like display of team and national chauvinism, condemned in others, overlooked in ourselves – often more sordid in defeat than in victory.
Up here in supposedly placid Canada, we have had fans riot and take the town apart, upon losing a Stanley Cup final – both in Vancouver and Montreal. Many were eventually arrested, in the most recent case, because they were taking selfies while doing it.
The ugliness of professional sport, the corruption at the heart of the Olympic movement, is hardly a mystery. (Another pub customer: “Brazil’s strategy for winning the World Cup went wrong when they found that the Germans weren’t taking bribes.”)
Nor is the associated violence and hooliganism something new. For it is time to remind gentle reader of e.g. the Nika Riots in Constantinople, fifteen centuries ago. Half the city was destroyed after a chariot race, with deaths estimated in the tens of thousands. Then, as often now, big professional sport provided a venue for communal rivalries.
And Christians immortally recall the roar in the Roman Forum.
Brazil, from what I understand, is among the more severe cases of “football nation.” As several commentators – themselves Brazilian – were quick to explain, the national identity of that vast country is tied up in football. They expounded the depth of Brazilian desolation, in losing at home, to foreigners, by such a margin, in so important a game.
Bless their foolish hearts, the huge crowd at Belo Horizonte began actually cheering for the Germans in the second half, and bitterly booing anything associated with their own side. I saw a photograph of a Brazil fan in the act of eating his own jersey. There could be no better evidence of trauma.
Still, properly understood, the defeat could be taken as God’s gift.
For here is a nation once profoundly Christian, and Catholic, which has, in the main, abandoned her faith, for idols. And not in some subtle and refined way, that would take careful analysis to make out, but overtly. The idolatry is perfectly obvious.
The subtlety lies here: in the very identification of the fans with their team. There is no humor in it, no whimsicality, no taking it for “sport” or “just a game.” Beneath the idolatry we begin to see the element of self-worship, which lies at a stratum touching the demonic.
Here we are staring at fanatic nationalism and communalism, at the worship of man by man, with which the Devil himself has replaced religious spirituality, and sought to checkmate a universal Church.
But God, in this instance, has responded with a gift, withheld perhaps from the Germans, but provided so generously to Brazil: “Put not your faith in football.”