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Why the Football World Cup is the champion of tournaments

“No other global tournament comes close to the FIFA World Cup, not even the Olympics”, writes James Cary. “Why is that – and what does it say about our deeper yearnings for unity?”

3 mins

November 18, 2022

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England won the World Cup Final. It’s possible you never heard about that.

That’s because the World Cup England won was the T20 Cricket World Cup Final. It took place this year on Sunday 13th November in Melbourne, Australia where England prevailed over Pakistan. I’m sure the 225 million people of Pakistan cared. 1.4 billion Indians were also following the tournament closely, until their team crashed out in the semi-final.

But although those are populous nations, and despite being a passionate cricket lover, I have to admit something: nothing compares to the honour and glory of the FIFA Men’s Football World Cup which kicks off this weekend.

Only a dozen or so nations play cricket to an international standard, and these are mostly from the Commonwealth. The Football World Cup is contested by thirty-two nations from all over the world. Senegal will play The Netherlands; Poland will take on Saudi Arabia. South Korea will do battle with Portugal. Each one of those thirty-two places was hotly contested in the qualifying stages. It is truly a global tournament.

Although I remember past cricketing contests, it is moments from World Cup history that are burned most deeply in my memory. I can vividly recall the room I was in (at school) and the utter elation I felt way back in 1990 when David Platt scored a goal in the last minute of extra time against Belgium, sparing England the agony of a penalty shoot-out – which would be the way England finally lost to Germany in the semi-final. Like many Englanders, I still remember that tournament 32 years later. That’s because the Football World Cup is the ultimate tournament.

Some might say the Olympics is bigger, better and more prestigious. After all, it is even more global and involves far more sports. But isn’t there something more unifying about thirty-two nations all playing the same sport? We don’t have the myriad of contests like the 100m, the hurdles, the javelin, shooting and so on. The World Cup is one competition. One sport. And each team has ninety minutes against the other.

Not only is it the same sport, it is the sport that most of us have played as kids. Few of us have thrown a javelin, pole-vaulted or fenced. Football really is the people’s game. You don’t need pads, an indoor court or a horse. You just need a ball and some jumpers for goalposts. And the object is simple. Score more goals than the opposition.

The game of football itself is beautifully simple. And simply beautiful. Each World Cup throws up those sublime moments and spectacular goals. Do they offset all the ugliness of player behaviour, diving, pretending to be injured and arguing with the referee? This year brings the added controversy of the tournament being held in Qatar, a country with an extremely poor record on human rights.

But it isn’t just the money and the contracts drawing people in to participate, to watch, to coach or to host trips. It’s the overwhelming desire to pretend none of those grisly ethical arguments matter, and that this football tournament transcends everything.

Some individual matchups feel highly charged politically, like USA vs Iran on 29th November. But such games are few and far between. Mostly, it’s about this curiously democratic, beguilingly simple game that creates this rare connection based on some form of shared humanity. I think it taps into our most basic longing to be one people.

In the Bible, we read about a moment when Jerusalem must have felt like a city hosting a World Cup tournament. People from all over the known world witnessed an event Christians call Pentecost; a time when everyone could hear the wonders of God being spoken miraculously in their own language. Some remarked that these people must be drunk, even though it was only nine o’clock in the morning. Maybe they thought it really was a football tournament.

That moment at Pentecost retains the diversity of different languages. Languages are deeply rooted in culture and vice versa. But there was also unity in that moment, in one Holy Spirit. Those who receive that Spirit become part of one Church. That means that, despite their prized and cherished cultural differences, Christians in Australia, Brazil, China and Denmark all enjoy unity. And it’s more than a feeling. It is based around one shared simple meal instituted by Jesus, a meal with bread and wine.

For a few weeks every four years, everyone gets a taste of a shared experience around one shared simple game. But when the tournament is done, and that feeling fades, the Church around the world will continue to enjoy the unity that comes from being one people under God.

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