Quadrennial Secular Religion

by Katherine Karr-Cornejo

Every four years I’m drawn back in to something that I love that makes me feel ecstatic and heartbroken. There’s an emotional whiplash that, thankfully, I don’t have to suffer alone. 
I’m speaking, of course, about the FIFA World Cup™. For some reason, people don’t expect someone like me to follow soccer. And to be honest, except for the men’s World Cup and when the United States Women’s National Team does well in a tournament, I’m not particularly public about it. Most people in the United States have never heard of the teams I root for in several South American national leagues, and other activities and responsibilities have overtaken the time I used to dedicate to watching, reading, discussing, and thinking about soccer.
A decade or so ago this wasn’t the case. In 2002 during the Cup held in Japan and South Korea, I remember trying to stay up to watch games that aired in the middle of the night and making charts to figure out how to tapeyes, on VHSevery game for later (re)viewing.
When visiting Montevideo (the site of the first World Cup in 1930) the only “must-see” on my list was the Estadio Centenario in which the majority of the tournament matches were played. I listened to radio broadcasts from Argentina on Sunday afternoons and wrote a senior thesis on soccer in literature. Then graduate school happened, my academic interests shifted, and my leisure activities slid away from my soccer obsession.
Part of what brings me back every four years is the way in which this tournament catches the imagination and makes me feel part of something bigger than myself. The shared intensity of focus and concentration and the reminders that people all over the world are watching together helps; in our best moments and with God’s help, it’s what feeling part of the whole Body of Christ is like.
While I’ve resisted skipping church to worship at the altar of sport, I admit to checking scores as we exchange the peace, and if the national teams of the United States or Chile had played during church time, my resistance would have been futile. My social media accounts have been full of family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues near and far reconnecting through our shared experiences of watching the games and rooting for our teams. We applaud Tim Howard’s heroic performance in a goal for the United States, and we still, days and weeks later, have nightmares about Mauricio Pinilla hitting the crossbar in the last minutes of extra time against Brazil. I always find the end of the World Cup’s group stage somewhat bittersweet because teams start going home. The promise of the open field has narrowed, and with it some of the enthusiasm for the experience.
Thankfully the United States and Chile did not have to meet in the tournament, as that would have seriously strained the peace in this bilingual, binational, and bicultural home.
I’m someone who is profoundly uncomfortable praying for God to take sides in our worldly conflicts. National flags have no place in our houses of worship. Even beyond the Jeffersonian tradition of separation between church and state, associating the idea of the nation which has so imperfectly divided humanity (between and within nations) with God’s church again seems to be projecting our own divisions and broken relationships onto the divine.
I’ll jokingly repeat the saying about being able to change your spouse, politics, and religion but not your football club as a way to try to explain how and why I dedicate time and emotional energy to a sport that many in the United States scorn as somehow un-American. There’s a whole genre of on-line essays dedicated to trying to figure out why people would say that. Even so, I admit I prayed for God to favor my favored teams, in whispered desperate moments during the Round of 16 in which both were eliminated. Obviously, that didn’t work out.
I once heard someone refer to baptism as choosing to suit up for Christ, to wear Christ’s jersey. As much as I love the athleticism and spatial poetry of soccer it, like most sports, sublimates violence and divides us into opposing teams. My faith and experience teach me that human ways are not God’s ways, and that human divisions are just that, human. We are all beloved children of the Creator, no matter who we root for. Taking part in an experience shared by so many others across the globe emphasizes that, and makes the victories ever sweeter and the defeats bearable.


Katherine Karr-Cornejo teaches Spanish and Latin American literature and culture at Whitworth University. She played soccer as a kid, which she can thank for an early concussion and a hatred of running. She’s never scored a goal, which sometimes happens when you always play defense. She roots for Colo-Colo and River Plate, no matter how well or badly they may be playing. She’s undecided about the Sounders.

Image above is from here.

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