Thursday, 12 July 2018

Our cup runneth over

For the past few weeks, millions of people around the world have been fascinated by the event known as the football (soccer) World Cup. Thirty-two national teams qualified to play, and the only certain fact when it started was that thirty-one of these teams would go home without the winner’s cup! Unfortunately England is one of these, despite having done much better than anyone expected.

Football is only one of many team sports which hold similar events to the FIFA World Cup. Team sport distils many of the different aspects of human life: comradeship, competition, identity, bravery, exertion, and self-sacrifice, as well as displaying individual skill and athleticism. In many ways, participation in sport can be very beneficial. Despite the England team being very inexperienced, it is generally accepted that it was their close comradeship and their team spirit which got them as far as they did.

Participation as a spectator in a football match shows certain parallels to participation in collective religious practices. The game sets out rules of behaviour, as does a religion. The spectators are often in serried rows, as in many religious services. Everyone comes together at set times, and in both sport and religion there may be symbolism in the clothing worn, there is often singing, and even a lot of praying (though this is mostly heart-felt, personal prayer at a football match!). Sport certainly provokes the same sort of fervour which attachment to a religion does, and in most cases gives people a positive sense of identity and belonging.

The FIFA World Cup may at first sight seem to be exalting the nation, whereas Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed that “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” However, the world is subtly changing. This World Cup treats every nation as theoretically important. So Senegal, Costa Rica, Colombia and Tunisia (nations less economically favoured) are treated as notional equals by Russia, Germany, France and Saudi Arabia (nations more politically or economically powerful). This is all part of the current process of humanity coming together. It is part of the road to true unity, in which all mankind will come together without needing the competitive element. It is national identity which is being celebrated here, rather than the outmoded concept of nationalism.

Another aspect of this changing world is also paraded for all to see – the increasing acceptance of obviously mixed populations. Many of the countries have teams made up of players of a variety of skin colours, and skill and effort are celebrated on merit, rather than because of someone’s ethnic background. Racism can still be found among some spectators, mostly from countries which are less varied in their own racial mix, but it has not been a major feature of this World Cup.

Bahá’u’lláh urged: “This handful of dust, the world, is one home: let it be in unity.” Every major sporting event, such as this exciting and unpredictable World Cup, helps this process on its way.


  1. In the context of sport, should any emotional attachment to one player or team be discouraged?

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  3. The above comment is not precisely related to any of the points which I was considering, and leads to many alternative directions of response. However, my own feeling is that attachment to a sports team or player is probably preferable to the vacant hole which many people seem to have in their lives, and which leaves room for selfish criminal behaviour or self-indulgent and ultimately destructive experimentation with habit-forming drugs.

    Emotional attachment to anyone or anything, however, can sometimes lead to disillusionment or disappointment. Attachment to one's house, one's car or other material possession is vulnerable to its loss. Attachment to a person can lead to disillusion if the person behaves in an unexpected way. It is safer to be detached from anything on this plane of existence, and a religious believer would say that emotional *attachment* should be replaced by spiritual *detachment*, from everything except God. Whether God actually exists or not, a belief in God cannot suffer from setbacks such as fire, theft, flood or unworthy behaviour - it is above all that!

    One final caveat - those who neurotically attach themselves to immature ideologies, such as modern Jihadism, are not spiritually attached at all. They just have a more destructive emotional attachment than does a sports fan.