Hand of God at the World Cup as Catholic nations well represented

By  Anna-Patrice Bitong, Catholic News Service
  • June 25, 2010
infant Jesus footballMADRID - On June 11, Spanish soccer fans gathered at Blessed Manuel Domingo Sol Catholic Church in Madrid to watch host nation South Africa play Mexico in the first game of the FIFA World Cup.

The church’s pastor, Fr. Esteban Diaz, says that bringing parishioners together for the games promotes good will and friendly relationships in his community. On a larger scale, he believes the quadrennial event is an opportunity to fight for peace.

“I want (the World Cup) to be a world meeting point with a harmonious atmosphere where we fight against differences. That is the most important,” Diaz said, adding, “As a soccer fan and a Spaniard, I would like Spain to win.”

Spain, the 2008 European champion and a favourite to win, is among 32 national teams that began the tournament and one of 13 teams that come from countries with majority Catholic populations. Another three World Cup countries — the United States, Germany and Nigeria — have sizable Catholic populations.

The Spanish team chaplain, 70-year-old Fr. Daniel Antolin, who has also served as Club Atletico de Madrid’s team chaplain for more than 30 years, has watched countless practices and matches from the sidelines and guided athletes through Catholic rites such as weddings and baptisms.

“The players respect me as a priest and as a friend,” Antolin said of his role.

While players do not attend Mass together or formally gather to pray, most rely on their Catholic upbringings to soothe pre-game nerves and pray privately, sometimes silently repeating the Lord’s Prayer before matches, Antolin said.

The Spanish team’s discreet invocations to God contrast sharply with Brazil’s open displays of spirituality. In 2002, when the South American team won the World Cup trophy for a record fifth time, players held hands, fell to their knees and bowed their heads in prayer. Others wore T-shirts that said “I love Jesus” and “I belong to Jesus.”

Antolin attributes at least some of the Brazilian team’s success to its religious unity and criticizes a decision by FIFA, the international soccer football governing body, to ban clothing and equipment with religious, political or personal statements on the field, a decision influenced by Brazil’s public Christian devotion.

Jim Stjerne Hansen, head of the Danish Football Federation, said there is no room for religion in soccer after the Brazilian team again prayed openly and revealed undergarments with Christian messages following their win at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. The players were not punished because the display happened after the final whistle.

“Just as we reject political manifestations, we should also say no to religious ones. There are too many risks involved ... with people of different religious faiths,” Hansen said in widely publicized remarks.

And at this World Cup, a reporter’s questioning of England star Wayne Rooney was cut off when the reporter delved into Rooney wearing a cross during training. Rooney replied, “It’s my religion.” When the reporter tried to continue his line of questioning, an official said, “We don’t do religion.”

Sao Paulo resident Claudia Nunes says she, like most Brazilians, does not mind watching her team pray on the field.

“I think (FIFA) should allow people to express (their) religion as far as it does not offend anybody else ... I don’t think that’s a big deal,” Nunes said.

Antolin will rely on God for help when Spain plays its matches.

“It will be challenging, but of course I believe we can finish in first place with the help of God.”

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