Without a doubt, the most popular sport played worldwide is association football. For the past month, millions of fans around the world have turned their attention to Qatar, hosts of the quadrennial football tournament known as the World Cup.
This edition, the 22nd, had many firsts. For the first time, the tournament is being held in a small Arab nation, a Middle East country that does not have a rich history of football like South American nations Brazil or Argentina, or European powers like Germany, Spain, France or England.
It is also the first time elite professional footballers challenged each other in the cooler temperatures of a Middle East winter: usually the competition is held June- July during the summer months.
The final match of World Cup Qatar is this Sunday, and it is expected that daily activities in the two nations that will face each other will come to a standstill from the blast of the referee’s first whistle to his last. One team will lift the renowned trophy, 36.5 centimetres tall made of 6.175 kilograms or 30,875 Carats of 18 karat (75 per cent) gold.
Granted not everyone is interested in the World Cup or football in general: 22 players running around in shorts, jerseys, football socks and boots chasing a football.
But there are positive life lessons of the ‘jogo bonito’ (Portuguese for the beautiful game), and of sports in general.
In early June 2018, the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life released a detailed document Giving the best of yourself: a Document on the Christian perspective on sport and the human person.
In it, the Church speaks to the benefits of participating in sports. ‘Chapter 3: Significance of Sports for the human person’ drew attention to how sports benefits the body, soul, spirit; reflected on the values of freedom, courage and sacrifice; encouraged creativity and cooperation; brought joy and harmony, taught equality, respect and solidarity; and most of all sport revealed the quest for ultimate meaning in life.
The document also quoted Pope Francis who told young people at the 70th anniversary of the Italian Sports Center, “I also hope you can taste the beauty of teamwork, which is so important in life. No individualism! No to playing for yourselves. …. To belong to a sports club means to reject every form of selfishness and isolation, it is an opportunity to encounter and be with others, to help one another, to compete in mutual esteem and to grow in brotherhood.”
There is a negative side to the game. Speaking to a delegation of professional Italian football teams, Pope Francis told the players and managers: “I would hope that football and all other popular sports can take back that element of celebration. Today football also operates within the world of business, marketing, television, etc. But the economic aspect must not prevail over that of the sport; [when it does so] it risks contaminating everything on the international, national, and even local level.”
Elements of this economic aspect, coupled with geopolitical and social concerns, were raised at World Cup Qatar as controversies swirled around the death of migrant workers building the stadia, human rights issues, and concerns of freedom of speech and expression.
These ‘off field’ matters though did not directly influence the activities ‘on field’ and will continue to be issues to be addressed.
The next World Cup will be co-hosted by Mexico, Canada, and the United States in 2026. Forty-eight teams are expected to compete, an increased by 16 from this edition. And the women’s game is increasing exponentially with the FIFA Women’s World Cup set for Australia and New Zealand in 2023.
Until then, may we all come together in front of our screens today, enjoy an exhibition of talent and skill, and celebrate a world community spirit.
Which team do you fancy?