World Cup Blues

Although I played a bit of the “beautiful game” in high school and college, and rooted for the Baltimore Bays when professional soccer was trying to get started in the U.S. with rosters composed of aging Europeans and not-quite-ready-for-prime-time players from Latin American and the Caribbean, I can’t say that I share the passionate interest of, oh, 80 percent of humanity in the current World Cup goings-on.

Perhaps it has something to do with some recent history.

I watched the 1994 World Cup final in Cracow’s un-air-conditioned Hotel Royal, recovering from a 104-degree fever caused by an attack of food poisoning that struck me on a bus trip to the shrine of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa—not the place to suffer a violent attack of gastric distress, I assure you. The TV in my hotel room was a 6-inch diameter black and white job, which reduced the Los Angeles Coliseum to the size of a large soup plate. Nor was my frame of mind improved by the game itself, a 0-0 (or “Nil-Nil,” in soccer-speak) tie between Brazil and Italy, ultimately won by the Brazilians who prevailed in penalty kicks, 3-2: a practice that struck me, then and now, as akin to settling the seventh game of the World Series by playing home run derby.

The 1998 World Cup was held in France and saw the host country record its first Cup win. That made President Jacques Chirac happy, and as a general proposition, whatever made Jacques happy made George unhappy.

On the first day of World Cup 2002, I happened to be in Lisbon, preparing to address a lunch meeting of what was described to me as “75 percent of the Portuguese GNP.” The United States played Portugal that morning and the Portuguese capital adjourned all business in order to watch the match, which it was assumed Portugal would win handily. Somehow, though, the U.S. prevailed, 3-2, which did not put my lunch audience in the most receptive of moods. I fear I did not improve the situation by apologizing for the game’s outcome, on the grounds that “You obviously care about this a lot more than we do…”

Then there was World Cup 2006, the final game of which is remembered primarily for the French star, Zinedine Zidane, getting himself ejected in overtime for head-butting an Italian adversary. Again, neither of the finalists managed to score a goal, so once again, the soccer equivalent of home run derby settled things in favor of the Italians.

I’ll be teaching in Cracow when the World Cup is in its win-or-go-home elimination round this year, and my students from central and eastern Europe will be intensely following every game—even the Nil-Nil games which, I will be told, are exercises in beauty that one must learn to appreciate. I’m sorry but I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.

I am perfectly prepared to argue that people who complain that “nothing happens in baseball” simply don’t know what they’re watching, for something is happening in baseball, the most situational of our sports, every second. But I’m not prepared to concede that I’m “missing something” in a sport in which there are more histrionics than in small-town Italian opera, scoring is about as frequent as Commonweal editorials praising the Roman Curia, and the premier global event is settled by home-run derby (or, if you prefer, a field-goal kicking contest).

As for the beautiful game’s athleticism, I readily concede that these guys are in fantastic shape and do some amazing things. But will a month of World Cup highlights produce any more incidents of beautiful athleticism than two weeks of “Web Gems” on ESPN’s “Sports Center” during the baseball season? I very much doubt it.

Out of solidarity with my students, I’ll watch the World Cup final, praying that it isn’t settled by a penalty-kick shootout. And I’ll be grateful that, for a few weeks, the usually-empty phrase “international community” actually means something. But I wish it would happen through a sport that acknowledges a simple, biblical truth: God gave us opposable thumbs for a reason.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Other than the first and third paragraphs, what makes this Catholic?

  • Joe DeVet

    To solve the problem of “nothing happening” for Weigel in soccer, and “nothing happening” in baseball for the rest of mankind, I offer this thought: we should all watch golf. Something is happening “every second” in this most situational of games, and the men and women who play are exquisite athletes, with marvelous mastery over both mind and body. Besides, the game is played on gorgeous venues which demonstrate how beautiful God could have made creation, if only He’d had the money!

    To janedoe: it’s Catholic because catholic means universal, and thus we care about the cares of all the world. (OK, that’s a bit of a stretch.)

  • Joe DeVet

    And besides, in golf there is no such thing as “nil-nil.”

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  • Mr. Weigel brings his Catholic worldview and his well-honed Catholic sense of humor to bear on everything he writes. A piece of writing does not have to be about religion to be Catholic; this article is Catholic because Weigel is Catholic through-and-through. If the Pope wrote an essay on soccer, wouldn’t it be a Catholic essay?

  • Warren Jewell

    Of a fact, Mr. Weigel is also being Catholic in the sense he would probably pray that these purportedly Catholic nations showed more enthusiasm for Sunday Mass than any sport, including the American baseball World Series.

    Of course, he and I and you could also say this about American Catholicism, where so many Catholics worry over their jobs without thinking to put knee to pew-kneeler at Mass to beg God’s graces for what security employment provides. Who, studies state, have their daughters aborting unborn innocents at the same rate as any atheist group; whose sons ignore religion in bulk numbers in the best and worst of times.

    And, personally, I loved playing sports, and can’t stand watching much of any of them.

  • bobbydobrasil

    George, your comments are insightful, but you forgot – God did indeed give us opposable thumbs, but in soccer these thumbs are for the goalie to use whenever the need arises and for the other 10 to use on throw-ins and for encouraging one another with pats on the back and handshakes. The limited use of hands – and the seemingly unlimited use of the feet – is what makes soccer skills so remarkable.
    Also, consider this little-recalled fact about soccer feet. In the World Cup of 1950 in Brazil the team from India was not allowed to play in that they refused to compete unless they could go barefoot! Had the world followed the Indian lead perhaps we would have fewer fouls – yellow and red cards – today. The play would be a tad less aggressive and even more intricate than what we witness in South Africa. {Parenthetically, I believe that 1994 final in the U.S. was played at the Rose Bowl, not the L.A. Coliseum, with the little old lady from Pasadena in the attendance.}
    Finally, two final thoughts: 1) more than not wanting to see penalty kicks, I prefer that we not have to see a “hand of God” illegal goal – such as Maradona’s strike vs. England years ago and 2) if the favored Brazilians were to win again we will undoubtedly here from them that “God is a Brazilian.” But that is not so bad in that those men who truly love the “beautiful game” genuinely love their fellow man not in words, but in action – and that is what the “game” should be all about.

  • goral

    I would not presume to know the catholicity of an article or to qualify it for our most Catholic of editors. I do however, now question the catholicity of one of my most admired writers. (TIC)

    Mr. Weigel, penalty kicks pit the shooter against the defender in the most deliberate and balanced stage in all of sports. This is the cobra and snake charmer on display, how finger-biting exciting.

    Nil-nil is a legitimate outcome of life. It’s there to prove a point, that there is no point. History records these teams as evenly matched with a forced outcome.
    How many couples come out of conflict or love with a nil-nil result?

    Re: incident in Portugal, nothing is more insulting to a formidable opponent than an adversary who shrugs his shoulders after winning. Fake elation if you have to just to give honor to the defeated.

    Teaching in Krakow, the eternal city of Catholic Central Europe, the birthplace of the Great Pope, the beautiful Soul, yes, the one who played football when he wasn’t skiing or hiking should have taught you that the game is spiritual and the summit of beautiful athletic display.

    Lastly, you will not find a more catholic game. Countless priests and brothers in cassocks and Sisters in habits have kicked the ball inside and outside of their respective Community walls. No doubt a questionable word escaped their consecrated lips in the process. In this year’s Mundial, you will not see more public displays of the Sign of the Cross, even at a three hour Orthodox Mass.

    You, Mr. Weigel, as all of us Catholics are in need of conversion.
    One should never apologize for being an American except in this case.
    May the Beautiful Black Madonna shower you with her graces and true appreciation for the beautiful game.

  • liturgylover

    1) How dare you question the ‘catholicity’ of anyone or insinuate their need for conversion?
    2) The cobra and snake-charmer example is hardly Catholic.
    3) I don’t think we need to LIE to make anyone feel better or give ‘honor to the defeated.”
    4) In a game where the athletes act like rock-stars (not good) and fans act like the blood-thirsty Romans in the Colliseum, what, pray tell, is so beautiful?
    5) Priests, Brothers and Sisters playing a game doesn’t make it catholic or Catholic. And trite, superstitious use of the Sign of the Cross is all too common in any sport, even by non-Catholics.

  • goral

    Liturgylover, you need to see the expression on my face when I make these “outragious” statements, but alas, how could you?

    Your points are all valid and in another forum I would concur entirely. The critique falls in line with my daughter’s admonitions –
    “Dad, watch what you say, not everybody understands your humor.”

    But that’s the beauty of it, nuanced vocabulary is what constitutes poetry.
    The game of world football is just that, poetry, sports liturgy, if you will.
    There’s the unexplainable beauty.

  • marylisa

    Liturgylover, you remind me of my mother :). I think Goral’s response was meant to be funny. Concerning your point #4, part of me agrees with you. My father was a P.E. teacher, and things like good sportsmanship, competition, hard work, etc. were pounded into all of our heads. He had contempt for prima dona athletes, the “need” for cheerleaders, and all the assorted bad things that have permeated the world of sports. As a female, I’m sometimes tempted to resent today’s sporting world, but after absorbing some Theology of the Body over the past few years (and reading Catholic physician Meg Meeker’s book “Boys Should Be Boys”), I’ve come to a greater appreciation of sports, and their role in shaping boys and men. Even if there is MUCH in sports that is less-than-admirable, that doesn’t mean we should shun them entirely. Christians are to be leaven for our paganized society. Sports, politics, journalism, academia, and Hollywood are all areas where there is much to criticize, but if they were to be permeated by a Christian worldview, how much better they could be!

  • noelfitz

    It is great to hear from Warren here.

    What has CE against soccer? Some time ago an article in CE tried to link the World Cup with human trafficking.

  • phayes

    why is this article still on the front page of the website. The 4th of July is upon us already let’s rejoice in our freedom, pray for our troops and our country.