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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    So the atheletes who pray for victory aren’t serious believers?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I don’t know. I’ve never met a serious believer who says that he or she prays for victory. Ever. They pray that they can play their best, avoid injury, etc.

    Readers out there: Have you ever seen an interview with an athlete who flat our prays, “Dear Lord, let me win”?

  • Martha

    “That would be the opposite of the doctrinal meaning of making the sign of the cross.”

    Maybe, but as an Irish Catholic, I always heard it referred to as “blessing yourself” and not “crossing yourself”.

  • Home on the Range

    No. Like you said, serious believers never pray that way because they know God doesn’t work like that. Athletes (my sons included) pray for fair referreeing, good play on both teams, and no injuries to anyone. Athletes are (usually) there to play the game because they love the sport and just want to play the game (whatever that game is).

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to notice more religious content in this world cup than previous ones. But I thought I was just seeing things! :D

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Martha beat me to the punch—I was going to say that I have heard making the sign of the cross called “blessing yourself” since I was a child and I’m now 67 and still hear it referred to as “blessing yourself.” Don’t the Orthodox who also make the sign of the cross (one of the oldest traditions in all Christianity) call it “blessing yourself??”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I have never heard it called that in an Orthodox context.

    Explain the logic of the statement. The symbol is that you are covered by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, that without that there is no salvation.

    How is that “blessing yourself”? How does a human being pronounce a blessing on oneself?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    “We don’t do religion” at the World Cup:

    RUSTENBURG, South Africa — England striker Wayne Rooney was blocked from discussing his religious beliefs by a Football Association media officer at the World Cup on Wednesday.

    Rooney had offered an insight into his Catholic faith by explaining why he wears a prominent cross and rosary beads around his neck when he’s not playing.

    That prompted a further question.

    But Mark Whittle, the FA’s head of media relations, interrupted Rooney in the off-camera briefing by saying: “We don’t do religion.”

    So, please, no more discussion about this topic. It’s just not appropriate.

  • Chris

    tmatt: One of the meanings of blessing is “the act of invoking divine protection or aid”. In that sense, “blessing oneself” is possible, and is the probable meaning implied by Catholics.

  • Julia

    65 yr old Catholic here agrees with Martha and Chris.

    Making the sign of the cross is asking for God’s blessing or protection for a specific time or event.
    I’ve never heard it described as related to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross or with the ultimate salvation of one’s soul.

    It’s an invocation of the trinity. There is nothing more common than a Catholic beginning a prayer with a sign of the cross while saying: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. It’s the essential part of Baptism, it’s in the Mass, it’s said by the priest to begin a session of Confession, it’s part of the last rites, etc., etc., etc. When a priest does it, the words and the gesture are directed toward other people.

    In a non-sacrament setting, it’s a personal entreaty for a blessing from God/the Trinity:

    let me be safe;
    let me not screw up;
    let me do my best.

    When the lay person starts off confession with the sign of the cross, he/she is asking God’s assistance in making a good confession.

    You get the idea.

  • Julia

    From the NYT article:

    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.

    Crucifixes and rosary beads are definitely NOT related to the Old Testament. Doh! One of the dumbest sentences about religious matters I have ever read.

  • Kamal

    The author of the Sunday (not New York) Times article didn’t mean that crucifixes and rosary beads are related to the Old Testament. His bit about “Old Testament language” was a reference to Rooney’s foul mouth.

    I guess the misunderstanding is understandable, though. That reference doesn’t seem to make much sense. My best guess is that he’s drawing an analogy between Rooney’s cursing (ie, swearing) on the field and God’s cursing (ie, actual cursing) of people in the Old Testament, but that’s a bit iffy. :S

  • Rick

    The sign of the cross means a number of things to Catholics:
    –It is a brief profession of our faith
    –A rememberance of baptism (especially when holy water is used)
    –A prayer to the Trinity
    –An invocation for divine assistance
    –A sign of discipleship
    –A rememberance of the cross of Jesus

  • Rick

    One of the definitions of bless is to make the sign of the cross over something. To bless yourself, is to make the sign of the cross on one’s self.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I was going to say that I have always heard the sign of the cross referred to as “blessing oneself” in the sense of asking for God’s blessing. But I see that many people have beaten me to it.

  • Julia

    The beginning of the Confession ritual is:

    “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” while making the sign of the cross.

    The similar “blessing oneself” is short-hand for asking for a blessing.

    It’s akin to praying to a saint to intercede with God. Often a kind of short-hand is used if a Catholic says they are praying to St Jude for something that is thought to be nigh impossible. You are actually asking St Jude to ask God(on your behalf)for something thought to be impossible.

    This kind of short-hand can unfortunately lead to misunderstandings about the Catholic faith, even by poorly catechized Catholics.

  • T Stanton

    Funny part of the tnr.com post as linked to by Tmatt.

    “Another is superstar Kaka, who celebrates his goals by pointing to the sky, frequently wears an undershirt reading “I Belong to Jesus” (in English, somewhat curiously)…”

    It’s funny (to me anyway) to see that knowledge that Evangelicalism is prevelant in the Brazilian team – doesn’t necessarily mean that a person has knowlegde of the Global Evangelicalism and it’s predeliction for English slogans. Aren’t all Evangelical worship songs written in English (our Australian) – I jest.

  • T Stanton

    EDIT – UGH – (or Australian).

  • Julia

    Just noticed another common mis-use of “blessing” (in a Catholic context) – equating it with approval.

    Tons of articles about the Vatican “blessing” The Blues Brothers movie, meaning the Vatican Seal of Approval or something. Here’s the NY Post headline – just one example that I encountered.

    Mission accomplished: Vatican blesses Blues Brothers


    Catholic priests and the Pope invoke God’s blessing on all kinds of people – period. It isn’t required to be in good standing with God or the Church to receive a blessing. Sometimes people not in sync with the Lord need it the most.

    Where did the press get this concept of a Catholic “blessing” only being for people who may not even need it? And invoking a blessing from God on a 30 year old movie?

    Maybe the headline writers are thinking of an imprimatur? Updated to mean “let it be screened” as well as “let it be printed”.

  • http://www.dropshippers.co.za/Baby-Monitor.html Monitors

    A fast white boy no just fast as I used to tell my African American brothers. Monitors

  • Maureen

    “Blessing oneself” comes from an Irish/Gaelic expression, as translated into English. The other translations are “saining oneself” and “crossing oneself”. It sounds weird in English, because English reflexives don’t work the same way as Irish ones. (Gaelic verb grammar makes my head hurt; I don’t understand it at all; so I’m just happy to have any translation, and never mind what it sounds like.)

    The original expression didn’t just mean making the Sign of the Cross, but making the Sign of the Cross _after dipping your fingers in holy water_. Thus the blessing part, because holy water is a blessed sacramental.

    Thus also the connection with “sain”, which in non-reflexive terms was an old English word meaning “to baptize”, because holy water reminds one of one’s Baptism.

    (And yes, it’s sad and amusing that some pagan/Wiccan groups have saining as a ceremony. Blame it on old translations of the Mabinogion.)

    Blessing yourself as making the Sign of the Cross is an extension of the original sense, but not a very big extension. The Sign of the Cross is a holy gesture that dedicates oneself to the Trinity, and implicitly calls on the Lord to bless what you do.

    It also makes sense in Irish culture, because in the old days, it was legally forbidden to see someone making something without blessing it, while it was unheard of, in the early Christian/patristic culture brought to Ireland, to do or make anything at all without yourself making the Sign of the Cross first. Also, as in most European Christian cultures, blessing and greeting each other were synonymous. So nobody was likely to be too worried about terminology when they were swimming in a sea of blessings, and perpetually asking God to bless the storeroom and the candle one had just lit.

    Blessings came from God. Everybody knew it. A simplified expression using metonymy or other rhetorical devices was not going to be misunderstood in a Christian society, and still isn’t.

    English as We Speak It in Ireland, by P.W. Joyce, is a good resource for understanding idiomatic Irish expressions in English. It’s online in plenty of places.

  • Maureen

    From “A Sketch of the life of the late Father Henry Young”, by Lady Georgiana Fullerton (1874), a story that uses this expression:

    “[He] was disappearing [into the confessional] when he perceived me making the Sign of the Cross. Immediately he turned on me, saying, “Is that the way you bless yourself? Bless yourself like this,” and with great reverence he made the sign of the cross in a manner I could never forget. “Now do it again till I see how you do it,” and he did not leave us until I had made it reverently enough to satisfy him.”

  • Maureen

    Oh, there’s another old Irish expression: “sign yourself”, which seems to be an eggcorn of “sain yourself”.

  • Maureen

    Oh, and one of the old meanings _in English_ of “to bless” is “to make the Sign of the Cross over something”. So making the Sign of the Cross over oneself would be “to bless oneself”, very logically.

    Heh… there’s a lot behind these old expressions…. I love how separate concepts, and even different languages, tend to converge and crystallize and cross-fertilize. I’m just sorry I don’t have the OED entry to give you, since I’m sure it’s fascinating.

  • Maureen

    P.S. I might be wrong about the holy water thing, since another expression is “bless oneself with holy water”. If the Sign of the Cross is the original important thing and not the holy water, that would make sense.

    Will shut up now.

  • Maureen

    I found the OED entry. It would seem that it’s an older English expression than an Irish one, though it may be a Scottish expression too (which would bring in the Gaelic). But Ireland does tend to hold onto old English expressions, so that’s not unheard of.

    Anyway, the whole “bless” OED entry is copied over to this mailing list post, if you scroll down: