While millions of Christians worshiped this third Advent Sunday, millions were also glued to a screen, anxiously watching as the Argentinian GOAT at long last lifted the World Cup trophy. Though past his prime, the 35-year-old team captain Lionel Messi was sublime in the competition, with seven goals and four assists under his belt and won the Golden Ball in his fifth World Cup.
Although the reserved Messi, whose right arm bears a tattoo of Jesus crowned with thorns, has not expressed his faith openly beyond pointing to heaven after his goals, this World Cup has featured numerous heroics of confessing Christians.
Leading the freewheeling French attack against Argentina was 36-year-old striker Olivier Giroud, who has Psalm 23’s “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want” tattooed in Latin on his right arm. During this World Cup, Giroud became the all-time top scorer for France with four magnificent goals.
While the team’s talisman Kylian Mbappé has lived up to the hype with his blistering speed and lethal shooting, Giroud has provided a reliable focal point on offense and his selfless play has created openings for his teammates. “I try to speak about my faith whenever I can,” he said after winning the World Cup in 2018. “I feel I have to use my media profile to talk about my commitment to Jesus Christ.”
During most of the past decade when Giroud played for two clubs in London, he attended St. Barnabas Church in Kensington, which belongs to the evangelical wing of the Church of England. During France’s quarterfinal against England, when he netted a header to secure a 2–1 win for Les Bleus, he faced an upcoming generation of English wingers who are living out their Christian faith with grace.
With three goals each, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka were stellar in Qatar. Both were nurtured in Black Pentecostal churches, and 25-year-old Rashford has already made a name for himself as an activist and philanthropist against racism and homelessness. At 21 years old, Saka has graced the cover of Time after winning England’s mens player of the year, and he shared that he reads the Bible every night to gain “peace and happiness.” Although Rashford and Saka received racist abuse online after missing the penalties in the final of Euro 2020, both have been praised for their resilience and for fostering wholesome camaraderie in the English squad.
England faced the US men’s national team (USMNT) in the group stage, and the stalwart American defense led by pastor’s kid Walker Zimmerman gave the underdogs a respectable 0–0 draw against formidable England. A Georgia native who brings his one-year-old son to practice, Zimmerman has been a towering leader at the back and an advocate for gun control and racial and gender equality, especially for equal pay at the US women’s national team.
Zimmerman has a fellow believer in Christian “Captain America” Pulisic, who scored the winning goal against Iran to send the USMNT to the knockout stage while suffering an abdominal injury after crashing into the opposing goalie. Pulisic told GQ last year that his $73 million move to Chelsea F.C. brought him closer to God despite steep competition for his playmaking position and injuries he suffered there. Two months prior to the World Cup, he posted Psalm 147:11 as an Instagram caption. The verse reads, “The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.”
At the other end of the field, Brazil’s No. 1 keeper Alisson Becker has made some spectacular saves to record two clean sheets and concede just two goals in four games. Although an unfortunately deflected Croatian strike in the 117th minute knocked out the favorites in the quarterfinals, Alisson will be returning to Liverpool F.C. where he is surrounded by faithful brothers in Christ. His charismatic coach Jürgen Klopp is a vocal Christian, and Alisson baptized his teammate Robert Firmino at a pool in his house. Their teammate Virgil van Dijk has even dubbed Alisson, who is a member at a Hillsong church in Liverpool, a “holy goalie.”
Despite the disappointment of a quarterfinal exit, outgoing Brazilian coach Tite gave his team plenty to cheer for. A devout Catholic, Tite gave all 26 players on his roster playing time in Qatar and danced with his players to celebrate the cascade of goals during Brazil’s 4–1 trouncing of South Korea. During the 2018 World Cup, he attended mass in Russia and was seen with a rosary during training in Qatar.
Perhaps the most devout team has been Ecuador. A day before the tournament began, midfielder Carlos Gruezo shared a video of him and his teammates praying. “Today begins a new story and who guides our steps is God,” he wrote in the caption. “Without you we can’t do anything. We give you all the glory and honor.”
After Guerzo’s teammate Enner Valencia converted a penalty in Ecuador’s opening match of the World Cup against host Qatar, he and his teammates gathered in a circle on their knees, raising their hands to praise God.
As many hoped to derail the dominance of European teams in recent World Cups, Moroccan coach Walid Regragui made headlines for leading the first Arab or African nation to a semifinal. Though his faith is unknown, he certainly embodied the biblical imperative to honor one’s father and mother by inviting the families of his players to join them for free in Qatar. One of the most moving images during the World Cup was Moroccan right back Achraf Hakimi running over to his mother in the stands to give her a kiss after Morocco’s historic victory over Belgium. “Our success is not possible without our parents’ happiness,” said Regrarui.
While Moroccan fans joined the ranks of Argentinian and Brazilian fans as some of the world’s most fervent during this World Cup, the most beloved were Japanese fans. Their cleaning of stadiums with blue trash bags following their country’s upset wins over heavyweights Germany and Spain went viral and inspired similar acts of tidiness. The Samurai Blues also left their locker rooms spotless after each game, which earned the respect of FIFA.
Qatar’s World Cup would not have been possible without the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from South Asian countries who built the stadium, often at a significant cost to themselves. More than 2,000 Nepali workers have died in Qatar since 2010 while building extravagant stadiums in torrid heat and atrocious conditions. Others will suffer chronic pain for the rest of their lives while their families remain mired in debt and poverty.
“Their [the migrant workers’] deaths were accepted and not investigated, their families are not adequately compensated,” wrote 2014 World Cup winner and former Germany captain Philipp Lahm, a Christian, on why he boycotted visiting Qatar.
Among the last words of American soccer journalist Grant Wahl, who passed away during the World Cup, was a scathing rebuke of apathy to the suffering of others.
“They just don’t care,” he wrote, referencing the death of another migrant worker at one of the team’s training resorts that occurred during the tournament.
As we return to worship after cheering for Messi’s victory this Sunday, perhaps we could pause to ponder whether Wahl’s indictment applies to us.
J. Y. Lee is a PhD student at Princeton Seminary and a freelance writer who reported from Brazil during the 2014 World Cup.
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