God, man and FIFA: The ongoing struggle to keep soccer as 'secular' as possible

Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 11.31.03 AM.png

Before we dive into this week's "Crossroads" podcast -- which is about faith and football (soccer here in America) -- please take a look at the map at the top of this post, which ran with a Washington Post feature story in 2015. (To tune in the new podcast, just click here.)

Basically, if you are looking for lots and lots of unbelievers, your best bet is to head to China, Europe and other highly industrialized and educated nations.

Where things get really complex is in Europe -- a continent in which belief and unbelief bump into one another on a regular basis. North America is quickly moving in that direction as well (you may have seen a few headlines about that). 

Now, look at the same map and think about the teams that made it into this year's FIFA World Cup (click here for a list).

Quite a mix of faith-intensive and rather faith-free nations, right? And what about the championship game, with powerful France taking on the cinderella squad from Croatia?

The Catholic News Agency offered this interesting feature about Croatia and its coach, under this striking headline: "Croatia's World Cup soccer coach clings to the rosary as he finds success."

How would this kind of symbolism play in modern France? Here is a key chunk of this story:

Here’s one reason Catholics in the US might be rooting for the small Central European country: Croatia is a deeply Catholic country, and the coach of its national team, Zlatko Dalic, is a man of sincere faith.
Dalic said recently that his current success is due to his faith in God, and that he always carries a rosary to hold onto in difficult times. Dalic spoke about his faith on Croatian Catholic radio when the World Cup began.
“Everything I have done in my life and in my professional career I owe to my faith, and I am grateful to my Lord,” Dalic said. ... "When a man loses any hope, then he must depend on our merciful God and on our faith," he said.
In that sense, Dalic explained that "I always carry a rosary with me" and "when I feel that I am going through a difficult time I put my hand in my pocket, I cling to it and then everything is easier.”

Now, why is the rosary hidden in his pocket? Why not just wear it around his wrist?

Well, how would that symbolic gesture mesh with this piece of the International Football Association Board's "Laws of the Game," used at the FIFA World Cup? This is a quote from my "On Religion" column for this past week:

"Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images." This rule "applies to all equipment (including clothing) worn by players," according to IFAB guidelines.

Can you get a yellow card penalty for excessive public faith?

Probably not. But the tensions are real, in part because the roots of FIFA and IFAB run deep into European culture, which tends to be less religious than many other football-loving parts of this very religious (as a rule) planet. That was one of the major themes in a recent lecture -- "Exorcisms and Exercise, Crosses and Cross Passes: What the World Cup has to do with Religious Freedom" -- by Jennifer Bryson, director of the Islam and Religious Freedom office at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C.

I loved this detail from her presentation. She gave participants a quiz, including this question: "National football association officials of what country objected when a team called in religious leaders to conduct an exorcism to rid a soccer field of evil spirits before a match?" (Hint: A big country in Asia.) Here's some other info from this column:

In this World Cup, Bryson noted that Egypt's Mohamed Salah prostrated and prayed after scoring against Russia. A Catholic and an evangelical knelt together in prayer -- one player from each team -- after Belgium defeated Panama. A Nigerian player waved his rosary after a win. An Eastern Orthodox player for Sweden made the sign of the cross when entering the game. So far, no one has been penalized.
There have been controversies during international play in the past, she said.
In 2003, leaders in heavily Protestant Scotland proposed a ban on players making the sign of the cross in a "provocative way." During a 2010 match in Austria, an Israeli player received a yellow card when, while celebrating a goal, he knelt and prayed after donning a yarmulke. In 2011, the Iranian women's team withdrew from an Olympic qualifying match when told that players could not participate while wearing hijabs. Evangelical Jaelene Hinkle withdrew from the U.S. national squad last year, rather than wear the mandatory LGBTQ "pride" rainbow jersey.

The bottom line: It's easy to imagine circumstance in which religious symbols and statements can be used as weapons to threaten players on other teams, from lands in which other faiths are common. Host Todd Wilken and I discussed several examples.

It's also clear that the lines between religion and politics are thinner in some lands than others. In Europe and parts of North America, a rainbow-Pride uniform may be considered "secular" and, thus, "safe." But note that the IFAB guidelines are worried about political statements, as well. Is a rainbow jersey "secular" in most of Africa or the Middle East?

Should members of an international team have to embrace the same symbols, secular or religious? Should their careers depend on how they handle that decision? Can athletes be forced to surrender symbols -- like the hijab -- crucial to their faith?

Enjoy the podcast. And the World Cup finale.

Please respect our Commenting Policy