The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shephers of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. Ezekiel 34:1-4 NIV
Last week’s devotional had to do with an incident in my oldest son’s high school soccer experience. Although I am not a die-hard soccer fan by any stretch, I have watched soccer, and especially World Cup soccer all my life. I even remember seeing Pelé play in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. I find many spiritual parables in soccer, so I think that I would enjoy writing “soccer devotionals” in preparation for this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
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FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is the body that administers the sport of Football or Soccer worldwide. No other major sport is so completely administered by its governing body. All the soccer leagues, associations, and tournaments around the world are either members of FIFA or have FIFA set their rules and guidelines. This is true, furthermore, at all levels of the sport: professional and amateur, national or club, youth or adult, male or female. For example if you go to the US Youth Soccer website, they will tell you that they have 600,000 volunteers and 300,000 coaches, that they are members of US Soccer (federation) and that US Soccer has been a member of FIFA since 1913.
How big is FIFA? Founded in 1904 by six European countries (seven, if you count Germany, which joined very quickly), FIFA was organized as a monopoly on international soccer matches. Since the United Kingdom and its dependencies had a stormy relationship with FIFA early on, the growth of that monopoly’s power truly began only after World War II with the third World Cup tournament which was held in Brazil. Today FIFA has 211 member countries (The Olympics has 206, and the United Nations a paltry 193), an income stream of about $1.6 billion a year and cash reserves of $1.4 billion. The association sponsors some 10 major international men’s soccer tournaments, 5 major women’s tournaments, and a major e-tournament for Soccer videogamers (the winner took $200,000).
Truly, FIFA has been given the responsibility of administering an international treasure, for soccer is a game like no other game in the history of humanity in terms of the number of participants and its global popularity.
But FIFA has its problems. It is an organization that is fully accountable to no one but itself. The millions upon millions of dollars that can be made from a World Cup tournament present a temptation for corruption, especially in the process of selection of the country that will host the tournament. In 2015, Federal Prosecutors in the United States began handing down indictments against members of the FIFA governing body, and others were arrested by Swiss authorities, in connection with bribery and corruption having to do with the decisions to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 cup to Qatar. To date some 16 FIFA officials have pled guilty to charges in the United States.
Corruption is not the only problem. FIFA does not adapt very quickly to changing circumstances. This is no wonder, since as an institution they are charged with defending the integrity and the traditions of the game. In 1966 England beat Germany in the World Cup final—but computer simulations today show that England’s third goal in overtime never crossed the goal line. Today, there is simple and inexpensive goal line technology that can instantaneously demonstrate whether or not a goal has actually been scored. On October 10, 2017 the United States was eliminated from the World Cup qualifiers by a “phantom goal” that Panama scored against Costa Rica. More than 50 years after the 1966 problem, there was no goal line technology in that qualifying match between Panama and Costa Rica.
Another problem that FIFA has is that their philosophy of “for the good of the game” often works to the oppression of players and workers. Soccer academies in Africa sell young prospects to European clubs—effectively engaging in the human trafficking of children. Stadiums in developing countries must be built to very demanding FIFA specifications, and the workers who built these giant sports palaces have few protections. Many hundreds of workers (mostly Indians and Nepalis) have died building soccer facilities in Qatar due to the unsafe working conditions.
FIFA is a parable of the church.
God has entrusted to the church the greatest message that humanity has ever known. This Gospel message declares that by receiving the gift of God’s grace made available in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all people everywhere, regardless of sex, ethnicity, age, or ability, can “get in the game” of a relationship with God and can belong to His international, eternal family. Despite all of its many manifestations, denominations, and doctrines, the Church is essentially one all over the world. But it has its problems. The Church is fully accountable to no one, and leaders of the church can and all too often do take advantage of the Gospel for their own benefit, or the benefit of their own little group. The Church does not adapt very quickly to new realities—for it, too, is concerned to preserve the integrity and the tradition of the message, sometimes at the expense of relevance and obedience the Spirit of the Gospel. The Church also often acts for the “good of the message” in ways that hurt the people for whom the message was created.
But can soccer exist without FIFA? I can’t imagine it. Nor can I imagine the Gospel without the Church.
Yours in Christ,