With God on our (football) side

So if American football is almost a religion, especially on the high holiday called the Super Bowl, what does that make the real thing, the real sport that is played with the feet? If the World Cup isn't a religious event -- in terms of civil religion, sociology and global myth -- then I would be hard pressed to find on. Young master Brad has already taken a look at some of the early stories built on that reality and, now, the "Religion Link" squad from the Religion Newswriters Association has put together some resources on the topic. Check that out.

Meanwhile, the global World Cup story has become interwoven with another big global religion-news story, which is the rise of the new evangelicals and Pentecostal Christians in parts of the world in which they have previously had little or no impact. Dig into the data, for example, in that headline-grabbing Pew Forum study not that long ago about the rising tide of Pentecostalism.

So what happens when the most famous and charismatic -- with a small "c" -- football team in the world suddenly gets religion and, to make matters more complicated, some of the key players are outspoken evangelical Protestants?

We're talking about Brazil. Here is the large slice at the top of a recent report in The Times:

After Brazil defeated the United States in the final of the Confederations Cup last year, the team indulged in a curious celebration -- they got down on their knees in a huddle to pray, giving thanks to the Great Dribbler in the sky. Kaka removed his shirt to reveal his familiar "I belong to Jesus" slogan and a number of team-mates revealed vests with similar evangelical messages.

Although Jim Stjerne Hansen, a "suit" from the Danish FA, got a little uppity about it all -- pointing to Fifa statutes banning advertising -- most of those looking on were taken with the whole thing. After all, it beats the baby-rocking routine that has become de rigueur in the Premier League.

Of course, it is not just the Brazilians who like to display their religious inclinations. Wayne Rooney caused a stir in the build-up to England’s game against the US by wearing a crucifix and rosary beads around his neck, giving referees a new perspective with which to interpret his -- shall we say -- Old Testament language.

We have also seen an astonishing prevalence of what might be termed religious body language at this World Cup. In the opening match between South Africa and Mexico, Steven Pienaar blessed himself twice before the opening whistle. Gonzalo Higuain, the Argentinian, made the sign of the cross so many times, it seemed less like a ritual and more like a nervous twitch. Other players have done everything from mouthing requests to heaven to clasping their hands in prayer. ...

There is quite a bit of snark there. The "Great Dribbler" in the sky? Also, it may be a "curious celebration" to see players praying together in the context of Great Britain, but it certainly is something that anyone who watches sports in America would recognize (even if the National Football League is uncomfortable about these peaceful images being shown on television screens).

Meanwhile, what precisely is meant by the reference to a player "blessing himself"? That would be the opposite of the doctrinal meaning of making the sign of the cross. Is the team at The Times actually unfamiliar with Catholic players crossing themselves before, shall we say, going into a battle in which injuries often take place?

While I have my questions about the story, it does contain some interesting information. Consider the symbolism of a match between Brazil and North Korea?

According to Open Doors, an organization that monitors religious harassment, North Korea persecutes Christians more severely than any other nation. Doing the sign of the cross, let alone getting into a prayer-huddle as per the Brazilians, is tantamount to becoming a political criminal. Goodness only knows what the regime would make of a player who ripped off his shirt to reveal "Jesus Lives" on his vest.

In some ways, it could be said that Brazil and North Korea represent polar extremes at this World Cup. It is not just in religion that they differ, but in everything from psyche to culture. Where Brazil revels in its reputation as the carnival capital of the world, encompassing every facet of humanity in its festivals of exuberance, North Koreans live lives of totalitarian regimentation.

That is interesting, but I want to know more about how the near-messianic expectations that surround a Brazilian superstar such as Kaka are affected by his turn toward a brand of Christianity that, to say the least, is not known for getting its groove on.

The story isn't interested in a question of that depth but, instead, veers into an utterly predictable discussion of whether it does any good to pray for victory (as if that is the nature of the prayers offered by athletes who are serious believers). Disappointing, I say.

If you are more interested in actual information about the believers from Brazil, head on over to the online home of The New Republic and check out this short, but interesting, piece that looks at this team in the context of the social changes addressed by the Pew Forum, the progressive Baptist historian Harvey Cox and others. A sample:

Many of Brazil's top stars of the past decade -- Adriano, Robinho, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho all come to mind -- were often known for a party lifestyle, and immaturity both on and off the field. The lack of discipline was widely blamed for the team's dismal showing four years ago, when the many famous forwards Brazil had at its disposal largely failed to score.

At the time, Kaka attacked then-coach Carlos Alberto Parreira's decision to allow his players to have sex during the cup (whereas Kaka proudly declared himself a virgin before his 2006 marriage). Four years later, the conjugal visits are out, and the evangelicals hold Bible readings during practice. While their teammates have not converted religiously, they may have culturally: this Brazil side is notably lacking "frivolity," replacing the flashy trappings of highlight-reel tricks with something far more austere, and uncompromising. ... One could call it "Calvinist" football -- not the Brazil of the past, but maybe the Brazil of the future.

So is Brazil swarming with Calvinist charismatics and evangelicals? Really?

Still, TNR is closer to the target. Please keep us posted if you see any mainstream coverage of these issues in media on this side of the pond. The World Cup is getting quite a bit of ink, this time around, so there is reason to hope for some nuanced coverage as the holy days roll on.

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