Soccer (or football as many dedicated fans in Australia and around the world call it) is uniquely placed as one of the world’s oldest sports and manages to inspire fans in almost every country. Even in Australia and New Zealand, where sports like rugby, cricket and AFL see a larger turnout of screaming fans donning their club’s colours, soccer still manages to evoke passion in a committed fanbase.
You’d be hard pressed to go to any corner of the globe where names like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and David Beckham are not recognised. Known as much for their footwork wizardry on the pitch as how they market and advertise cologne, apparel and even underwear, they exemplify how soccer truly is the world game.
When I was in primary school, there was always an exciting buzz when an underdog team managed to overcome all odds and face the giants of world soccer.
Many Australians remember when the country surpassed expectations and managed to face eventual world champions Italy in the knockout phase of the 2006 World Cup. They’ll then proceed to kindly remind you how Australia was robbed when Fabio Grosso definitely dived over Lucas Neill’s tackle in the penalty box.
Likewise, many New Zealanders will tell you they were undefeated at the 2010 World Cup; a feat that not even eventual world champions Spain achieved during that tournament—but they’ll fail to mention this was a result of three draws. They may also tell you how Kiwi semi-professional side Auckland City, with a roster of players that were working day jobs, was one game away from facing Real Madrid at the 2014 Club World Cup final—and then managed to defeat Mexican powerhouse club Cruz Azul to secure third place at the tournament.
Every sport fan has also heard of Leicester City overcoming 5000-to-1 odds to win the English Premier League title in 2015/16. Or locally, soccer fans in Australia witnessed Adelaide United become the only professional sport team in the country to rise from the bottom of the table in round eight to win the championship at the end of the season.
The truth, however, is that all those moments are rare.
When Money Is Involved
Along with the mass appeal of soccer comes a darker side: the business aspect of the sport. Indeed, soccer is dominated by money and rarely do underdog clubs, often on smaller budgets, win trophies in some of the world’s biggest leagues.
The two richest clubs in the world, Barcelona and Real Madrid—who according to Forbes had a combined value of $A10 billion in May 2019—have won the Spanish League (La Liga) for 15 out of the last 17 seasons. In Germany, Bayern Munich, worth $A1.92 billion, has won the league for eight consecutive seasons with no sign of slowing down. Likewise, Juventus has won for nine seasons in a row in Italy, and Paris Saint-Germain has won seven out of the last eight French league titles.
Massive investment into securing the best players for a club breeds success, yielding dividends in the form of prize money and allowing for further investment. As a result, foreign investment is ruling the sport. Corporations like City Football Group, worth $A6.27 billion, has Abu Dhabi United Group as a majority shareholder and owns a portfolio of clubs including Manchester City. This allows them to continue buying the world’s best players for its clubs and extending the roll of success.
A club like Real Madrid is known as being the most successful team in Europe’s most elite competition, the Champions League, where the best teams from Europe’s domestic leagues face off against each other. Madrid’s run of four Champions League titles in five years between 2013 and 2018 in that competition highlighted its reliance on Galactico’s; a Spanish term used to refer to world-class players who carry an exorbitant salary, such as David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo or more recently Eden Hazard.
Europe’s regional competition, Euro 2020, or South America’s Copa America, provide respite from the heavily business-centred club soccer world, and they serve as a reminder of what the sport can look like when the playing field is more even. As international teams, they can’t simply buy players, but need to nurture and develop homegrown talent, hoping they flourish in some of the world’s biggest leagues.
This is why after years of developing local players, teams like France, Belgium, Netherlands and England head into Euro 2020 as hot favourites. Similarly, Copa America will likely see Brazil, Argentina and Colombia do battle for the title. In this respect, you can’t buy allegiance in international soccer as you can in club soccer.
Victory Before Full-Time
All the national pride that comes whenever countries line up together on the pitch, pales in comparison to the level of allegiance that many pledge to the Creator of the universe. Much like how soccer teams take on the opposition in order to win the continual support of their fans, God does battle with the enemy Satan to secure the hearts of every person on the planet. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” He says (Luke 10:27).
Supporting Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Paris Saint-Germain can be done with some level of confidence. These billion-dollar clubs have an impressive track record in securing trophies. To support God, however, is to support a side that has already won. “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
Sounds like an easy team to support, right? There’s no reason why everyone on earth shouldn’t simply jump on the bandwagon. The problem is, while God’s side has already won, the Bible never promised that a life with Jesus would be a simple and easy run until the final whistle.
There are many who have and will “believe it for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away” (Luke 8:13). But those who stay committed to God’s cause—those who don’t leave the “stadium” when it seems like God’s team might not win—they are the ones the Bible describes as having “fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7,8).
God’s victory will be the ultimate underdog story, far greater than Leicester City or Adelaide United, with only the most committed followers sticking with Him all the way until the end.
While I look forward to all the (extremely) early morning soccer broadcasts from the other side of the world this winter, I have the assurance that all the stress and anxiety of my team winning or losing is nothing compared to a promised future in heaven with God. I hope you choose His team too.
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Let’s get the ball rolling.
Daniel Kuberek is assistant editor for Signs of the Times magazine. Unfortunately, his personal soccer career yielded zero trophies, a dislocated finger and a wounded ego.