Today at 4:00 (Eastern time), the world’s single largest sporting event, the World Cup, kicks off in Sao Paulo, Brazil. No other sport commands such universal enthusiasm as soccer (known by most of the world as football), and no other event draws as much of the world’s attention at one time as the World Cup. While the whole world competes at the Olympics, the whole world pays attention to the World Cup, a tournament held for a sport so democratic that anyone with four rocks and a ball can play. The event’s viewership spans the spectrum of humanity, uniting places as far apart–physically, socially, and culturally–as Buckingham Palace and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, gluing people to their television sets on the slopes of Mt. Fujii, the steppes of Russia, the shantytowns of South Africa, and the sweltering streets of Mexico City.
In Haiti, most people separate at this time of year into fans of one of two teams: Brazil or Argentina. The flags of these two countries can be seen flying from houses (often on opposite sides of the same street), cars, and motorcycles. Murals in green and yellow (Brazil) or blue and white (Argentina) adorn houses, shops, bridges and any other open space. Why these two teams? The quick answer is easy: they win. However, it’s too easy–so do plenty of other teams. In fact, three of the last four World Cup championships have been won by Spain, Italy, and France. It is extraordinarily rare, however, to find Haitians pulling for any European team. The most likely reason is that when most Haitians look at teams from the developed world, they seem like they inhabit another planet. When Haitians look at players from the developing world–many of whom grew up in grinding poverty in barrios or favelas not unlike the slums of Port-au-Prince–they see themselves. Or rather, they see themselves as they would like to be–wealthy, successful, victorious, and free from poverty. Ti Manno might live in Cité Soleil on $2 a day, but he can live vicariously through Neymar or Maradona and dream of the world as it ought to be.
Indeed, for a brief shining month every four years, Haiti is almost what as a nation it should be. The power company saves up fuel for months in advance and powers nearly every corner of the city. People set political tensions aside for a moment to crowd around televisions carried into the street to benefit those who do not have one. Even the tortuous traffic that normally chokes the larger cities eases a bit as people take time out of their day to watch the games. Stupid things are occasionally done at World Cup time–losing a lifetime’s worth of money on a bet, for instance, or allowing a team rivalry to spill over into personal violence is not unheard of–but for the most part, peace and understanding prevails to a greater extent than usual. Even on the international level, a sort of poetic justice plays itself out, as the world’s military heavyweights–the United States, China, and Russia, field one mediocre team after another while the Third World shines. (In what other context could a sentence like “Ghana squelched the Americans’ last hope of victory today” regularly be written without a trace of irony?) For believers in Jesus’ promises of an upside-down kingdom of grace and a future judgment at which “the last shall be first,” the World Cup serves as a fitting parable of things to come. Indeed, over the coming month, a world soccer tournament will express the ecstasy and the ache of so many Christ-followers in the developing world who say “Jesus is more than enough, but I’m still looking forward to knowing how it will feel to finally be free.”