The Most Important Thing About Soccer

We are down by a couple of goals, and I am on my feet even though I have a perfectly good folding chair sitting on the grass right behind me. It is soccer season, and we have waited long for it. It was Africa when my boys last had others to play the game with; soccer fans are not as plentiful here. But this pitch is gloriously grassy, and their patience has paid off, and time is running out if we’re going to come back and win this thing.

Soccer Feet

The other team is fast and disciplined. They are few in number; no subs for them. Unfortunately for us, this is irrelevant because they are all strong enough to play this whole thing out with force left over. One of our players- we’ll call him “Jack”- is bested by their striker. Again. And there goes another goal.

This game doesn’t go down in the books under the “W” column for us, and we are talking about it later that day when I hear my youngest ask his brother, “Did you hear the kids on the bench?”

“What did they say?” I usurp his question with my own. He lowers his head and his voice a bit and repeats it: “Jack sucks.”

I do care that they train diligently and develop their skills. I care that they are smart defenders and quick ball handlers and accurate shooters. But what drives our conversation the following day is that I care so much more that they understand who Jack is.

“What do you think will be the most important game you play this year?” I ask them.

“The last one,” they reckon.

“And what about the pros- I guess their games are kind of a big deal?” I say. The boys go on for a few minutes about the Premier League. And then the Champion’s League. And then they decide the World Cup has to be the very most important, clearly.

“And do you know what is more important than every single Premier League game, every single Champion’s League game, every single World Cup game that has ever been played- combined?” I pose to them.

It is silent around the table.

“Jack. Jack is more important.”

I remind my boys that God did not bestow the honor of his image on any soccer game in the history of the world, but He did give it to Jack. I remind them that Jesus did not give his life for any soccer match ever played, but he did for Jack. The soccer game matters, I tell them- every time you play it is a gift from God. Play gratefully. Play humbly. Play your hardest- don’t squander the strength he gave you. But I beg them not to play as if the game is more important than the people playing it. I tell them to be gracious to the boys who might not yet have learned that soccer is not the most important thing about soccer. Be gracious, but not silent.

I understand that such language of belittling and insult is common in today’s culture; perhaps it is even expected. Perhaps it will even get you elected president of these United States, so gnarled are the days in which we live. But I am desperate for my sons to learn that the tongue has the power of life and death and that Ephesians calls them to wield the power of their words to build others up, to meet their needs, to benefit them. After all, it is as C.S. Lewis laid out so well in The Weight of Glory:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations- these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

I want them to get this. I want to get this. To slow my tongue to the speed of wisdom… to feel the weight of divine intention and design in each of my neighbors- the ones across the world and across the street and across the kitchen table… and to honor the Image-Bestower who I cannot see by loving and serving his image-bearers who I can. At best, it will be worship; at the least, it is simple manners.

Perhaps Jack could improve his soccer skills. (Perhaps this is also true of every other member of the team while we’re on the subject of ten year olds who are not Pelé.) And good for him if he does- if, in learning passes and headers and blocks, he uses them to win soccer games. But so much the better for those who will use soccer games to learn the discipline of humility, the art of building others up, and the skill of seeing beyond a thing to the most important thing… as I recall Jesus said it had something to do with love.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:36-40

by Sarah Stehlik
March 10, 2016

2 thoughts on “The Most Important Thing About Soccer”

  1. Brooke Fish says:

    Bravo Sarah!!! Thank you for this! Sharing it with my soccer enthusiast tonight.

    1. Sarah Stehlik says:

      So glad you enjoyed it!

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