The 2018 World Cup Soccer Tournament is underway. Four years ago, an estimated 3.2 billion people tuned in to watch. That is nearly half of the world’s population. Think about it: international football [or soccer, as we outlying North Americans call it] has at least three times more fans than any one religion has adherents. The human race today knows more about Messi than Moses or Mohamed. The faces of Neymar and Cristiano Renaldo are more widely recognized than the Pope, Brad Pitt, or the President. Soccer has, by far, the most ‘religious’ adherents in the world today.
So, what’s the appeal?
I was not always a soccer fan. My interest in soccer can be attributed to timing, geography and sibling rivalry. In the 70s and 80’s, we lived in Rochester, NY, town chosen to seed US youth soccer, hosting a professional team back when NSA stood for National Soccer Association. Go Lancers! Back then, my brother’s soccer play was getting noticed, and, I wanted in. Once I started playing, I was hooked. Looking back now, here are some thoughts as to why I came to and continue to love the game.
First, accessibility. Two feet, one ball, some friends, and a bit of level ground – that’s all it takes. Anyone anywhere can play. The expense is negligible, and the rules are simple. Soccer is a great equalizer. In the World Cup, every nation on earth can field a team regardless of GDP, as evidenced by the fact that the US Men’s team did not qualify this year, and I like Nigeria’s chances to advance.
Second, smarts and skills foster success more than size and speed. The latter two are largely (pun intended) determined by birthright. And sure, speed and size help, but on the soccer pitch the small, smart, skillful player is far more valuable than the biggest, strongest or fastest athlete. Soccer offers a true meritocracy, rewarding intelligence and hard work.
Before each game, my father, who never played soccer himself, would ask me, “What skill are you going work on today?” He understood that games were also opportunities for improvement. Once I realized that winning and scoring are not skills, I began to focus my attention on particular aspects or midot, of my play, such as passing or positioning, trapping or timing runs. Intentional practice produced results, measured in goals scored, games won, and more fun for me and my teammates. I direct my spiritual life by the same principle. Smart (intentionally focused) skill development through regular practice is the path to success.
Third, the shirt exchange. In 1994, the last time the World Cup was in the US, I was in Israel for the summer. One of my fondest memories was getting up in the middle of the night to join a small crowd of Israeli hotel workers and international guests in the hotel lobby to watch the action live. During the game, we stood a safe distance from one another, each cheering our respective team in our varied mother tongues. And, when the game was over, we’d turn to one another, shake hands, and share wide, appreciative smiles. Through this competition a bond was created that transcended national allegiances.
The field players avoid using their hands throughout the course of play. After the whistle blows at the end of the game, the custom is for players to extend their hands to one another in congratulations, exchange jerseys, and don one another’s national colors. This is a diplomatic equivalent of exchanging flags and, in my eyes, one of the most beautiful and important features of World Cup tradition, especially these days.
Accessibility. Smarts and skills. Literally, sharing the shirt off our backs. These are among the reasons that soccer has won hearts and minds like mine. They also reflect three core values of Jewish life and this congregation – inclusivity, life-long learning through regular practice, and mutual support.
Here’s to sacred play, in all its forms.
Rabbi Jamie Arnold