Monday, 14 July 2014

It's all over - reflections on the World Cup

So that's it. It's all over. Germany rules the world of football. Deservedly, most would say.

Some will be glad it's over - those who can now recover the remote control and watch their favourite programmes on catch-up TV or from recordings! Others, for whom football is nearly everything, will have withdrawal symptoms, for which the only adequate treatment, it seems, is to begin a course of counting the days to the next world cup four years hence. 

Many pundits and commentators say that this was the best world cup ever. It equalled the most goals scored in any previous world cup tournament; it had drama, unexpected results, exciting games, individual brilliance and great crowds. I didn't watch all that often, but the games I did watch were disappointing, not necessarily for the standard of football, but for a lack of ethical standards on the part of too many people, on and off the pitch. 

In sheer footballing terms it may have been the best world cup ever. But, for me at least, in moral terms it was far from that! Sure, there were players who made it obvious that they were Christians, attributing their success to God and accepting failure too as part of his plan for their lives. That was good to see. And there were many others who showed no Christian convictions but played the game as it should be played, fairly, honestly and respectfully. But there were too many others who consistently set out to cheat a way to success.

Cheating, attempts to con the referees by falling to ground for the least contact by an opposing player, and then hoping for a penalty or a free kick, and perhaps even a sending off, have all too obviously, and sadly, become part of the game. The "must win" pressure on players and coaches, the financial rewards for winning, or penalties for failure, have resulted in the degrading of "the beautiful game" into a contest in which winning is everything. The end justifies any means used to achieve it, even at the expense of honesty. 

And because this seems now to be an accepted aspect of how the game is played, coaches find it hard to condemn this behaviour in public, which is where it has to be denounced if it is to be seriously tackled and eradicated. There's too much at stake. Because the win is what counts above all else pretence is legitimised as an aspect of how victory is to be achieved. If all coaches were to agree that any player in their team who was found to have been guilty of blatant cheating (it's easy enough now to establish this with TV evidence) would not be chosen to play for the team, club or country, if they repeated the offence, the practice would very soon cease! But, if you have a Neymar or a Suarez in your team it's going to take guts to do this, and there isn't much of that moral quality around at the moment!

What is won by cheating is really won at the loss of something much more valuable than a world cup or the accolade of being the best team, player or coach on the planet. The Bible calls it truth. Honesty, integrity, justice and the consideration of other people's reputation are of far greater worth than plaudits for winning games. The loss of integrity cannot be made up for by everybody agreeing that this has to be the way the game is now played, which is really just a cowardly acceptance of the inevitability of it all. There is no substitute for truth. Take it off the field and put pretence on as its substitute and whatever skills may be shown, or results achieved, the overall loss of integrity amounts to a massive moral loss. Of course, this applies to every area of human life, at every level, not merely to the football pitch.

The cheat gains a bad reputation, loses the trust of fellow professionals and in addition to bringing shame on himself he dishonours his club or country, even if his team wins by his actions. "Wearing the shirt" involves a commitment to win. Nothing wrong with that. But it ought also to include how one plays the game and treats opponents as well as a commitment to win. Being proud to "play for the shirt" leaves no room for cheating. How can one feel proud of having worn the shirt if he has achieved victory by a deliberate act of cheating? 

For Christians, not just in football but in all walks of life, we need to come back daily to Jesus to remind ourselves of what integrity is all about and why it is so crucially important. Jesus is our source of integrity and its greatest example. He constantly faced accusations of cheating, dishonesty and lack of truthfulness. But that did not deflect him from living truthfully. He said, "For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth." Nobody ever faced as many temptations to cheat as he did. The devil offered him a path to victory and glory minus a cross. All he had to do was to fall down and worship him, the "father of untruths." But Jesus always refused and overcame, by the truth. Victory could not and would not be on any other terms.

The Bible makes it clear that Jesus achieved all this not by being shielded from the plight of human beings as needy of salvation but by a full participation in their plight. If I may use a footballing metaphor, in Jesus Christ God was not watching the game of human life from the stands or even from the sidelines; he came onto the pitch and got stuck into the game. When deliberately made the target of abuse and then fouled consistently by opponents who envied his skills but could not match them, he did not make signals to the coach to take him off and have a substitute replace him. No, he had come on for this very purpose that he would take all this punishment for those he came to save, even to the point of giving his life so that he would captain the winning side. No cheating. No pretended injuries. No attempts to con or get others into trouble. Just a perfect commitment to the truth!

As his lifeless body hung on the cross his opponents must have thought "It's all over." They thought they had won the game by cheating their way to his condemnation, drawing up false charges against him, condemning him and crucifying him. But God's view of it was very different, and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was God's emphatic statement against them - "You thought it was all over. It is now!" Death was defeated, sin overcome, truth upheld, God's law fulfilled, God satisfied, redemption accomplished and heaven secured!

For his followers no less is required than that they also be committed to the truth. In the Bible cheating is called "hypocrisy", a pretence, a mask of seeming truth over a false heart. Just like on the football pitch it brings dishonour upon the perpetrator and on the "team", the Church. "Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4). For Christians "playing for the shirt", wearing the "Captain's" colours, is an honour never to be taken for granted. His reputation is closely tied to the performance of the team. If they live falsely his integrity is questioned. 

A soldier in the army of the emperor Alexander the Great was brought to him having been found guilty of desertion. The emperor asked, "What is your name?" He replied, "Your Highness, my name is Alexander." The emperor then said, "Then my son, you have a choice. Either change your ways or change your name." As Christians we face this choice every day and it should not be a difficult one to make!

There will be much celebration over Germany's triumph. Rightly so. They deserved to win. They are the kings of the world of football and they have the trophy to prove it. If only as many celebrated the victory achieved by Jesus Christ, kneeling to him as the rightful King of the world and receiving the trophy of eternal life from his hands! 

Which team are you in?