Religion at World Cup 2018: Christianity Today spots valid hard-news hook worth covering

Over the nearly 15 years of GetReligion's run, I have learned quite a few lessons about content and online clicks.

No, I'm not talking about the sad reality that hardly anyone reads and retweets positive posts that praise good religion reporting in the mainstream press.

I am referring to the fact that GetReligion readers are way, way, way, way less interested in sports that most readers. However, the GetReligion team has always included some sports fans -- in addition to me -- and we persist in thinking that "religion ghosts" and quality reporting on faith issues matter just as much in sports journalism as anywhere else. And we're not just talking about Tim Tebow updates.

This brings me, of course, to the biggest thing that is happening in the world right now. Yes, a news event bigger than that open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

We're talking about World Cup 2018, of course. When you look at global media and passionate fans, nothing can touch it.

Now, there are always religion-news hooks during a World Cup, because religion plays a huge role in most cultures around the world. In the past decade or so, for example, there has been lots of coverage of the strong evangelical and Pentecostal presence on the high-profile squad fielded by Brazil. Of course, some scribes have found political implications of that trend.

This year, if you've been tuned in, it's been interesting to watch Fox Sports trying to figure out how to handle all of the Russian churches that keep showing up whenever the graphics team needs to produce dramatic, sweeping images of the host nation. Was it just (Orthodox) me or, early on, had the Fox digital tech team removed some crosses from the top of some of those signature onion domes?

Anyway, the religion-news coverage has been rather right, this time around. However, Christianity Today just ran a story that I would like to recommend to journalists who are looking for valid news angles in the Russia World Cup.

Once again, the Brazilian squad is involved, but there's more to this story than that. Check out the dramatic double-decker headline:

Brazil’s Soccer Stars Love Jesus. Not Everybody Loves Their Christian Celebrations
What a ban on World Cup religious demonstrations reveals about evangelicals in South America’s biggest country.

Here's the overture. This is long, but essential:

In Brazil, the country of football, the relationship between religion and the soccer ball is old. Athletes have long played with crucifixes, medals of saints, or wrist tapes honoring the deities of the local Candomblé cult. But in recent years, explicit evangelical expressions of the faith in Christ have dominated the sporting scene. Perhaps not surprising in a country where nearly 25 percent of the population is Protestant, Brazil’s national team prays before and after games and celebrates goals by displaying T-shirts with Christian messages. At least six athletes on the current national team playing in this summer’s World Cup have declared themselves evangelical, including Fernandinho, Thiago Silva, Alisson, Douglas Costa, Willian and its star, Neymar.
But unlike previous international tournaments, the team has been banned from celebrating any of its on-field successes through religious expression. Just before the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) banned the team from religiously themed celebrations, claiming that the practice could divert focus on competition and constrain athletes who practice other beliefs or are agnostic. The measure, announced in June, is in line with guidelines from FIFA itself, which controls the world of football and which, since the 2006 World Cup, has been restricting religious demonstrations on the field.

I really appreciated the fact that CT noted that Christians in Brazil are not in total agreement about whether this born-again trend is good or bad. For example, what happens when your superstar keeps flaunting his faith, and his sex life. Thus:

As Protestantism has grown in Brazil so has a certain cultural relaxation of the traditional values of Christianity. Nowhere is this clearer than with Neymar. When his country won gold in their home Olympics in 2016, he took the podium to receive his gold medal with a headband reading "100% Jesus.” Yet this ostensible display of devotion caused controversy, given the player’s out of wedlock son and public love life.

Meanwhile, I would love to know more about that FIFA rule and how it has affected other players in other world religions -- like Islam. Historically speaking, were there tensions -- on the pitch or off -- that caused this crackdown?

Meanwhile, back in Brazil:

Whether or not this new CBF ruling will ultimately impact the Brazilian soccer’s outward religiosity remains to be seen. What’s most evident is that Catholicism’s grip on the country’s culture has ended. “Before, when Catholicism was practically absolute in Brazil, the visibility of evangelicals was barely perceptible,” said social scientist Roberto Afranio Nunes. “Since the 1980s, and especially since the next decade, being linked to the evangelical church, something that has been discriminated against, has given certain social status.”

The bottom line: The Brazil story remains relevant, especially as that proud nation's squad marches toward another gold cup to add to its collection. However, there is another story here that is bigger than one nation and one faith. 

Those FIFA rules? Yes, more coverage. Please.

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