Thursday, June 04, 2015

One from the Heart: FIFA, Football, Corruption, and the Authority of Jesus


I was just a little kid, barely 10 and I fell in love with a sport, soccer (to the world outside of the USA: football). The man who introduced me to this global game was a colleague of my dad's. After I expressed interest in the sport, Tibor came over with a ball and an illustrated book that showed different techniques and diagrammed drills and exercises that a novice could practice in order to build up their skill and fitness. Tibor was a crusty, cranky ex-pat Hungarian sociologist. He's retired now, like my dad, but is still as crusty and cranky as ever. The passion for football born that day infected not only me, but also my family. My parents hold season tickets to the local major league soccer franchise in their city. My sister was the scorekeeper for our high school team....and we call still enjoy the spectacle, joy and experience of attending matches. 

For folks in the United States, even with soccer becoming ever-more influential in our lives, it is hard to comprehend the global impact that the universality of this game has had on humanity as a whole. There is not a corner of the known world where the game is not played, and few human populations that do not find some expression of the sport in their daily lives. Travel anywhere, take out a ball on a beach, in a park or even on the street and you will soon have a pick up game going. Go to a match at any level wherein clubs play each other in league competition and you will find ardent passion for their team being expressed by supporters for whom team and club allegiances are often formed before birth and transmitted to progeny as much as any genetic trait might be at the moment of conception.
Football is a, if not the human game/sport/passtime. 

Which is perhaps why people are reacting as strongly as they are right now to the toppling of the current authority in the governing board of FIFA, the acknowledged world governing body of football. FIFA was and is the express source of the identity, rules, regulations and culture of competitive football. When I was a little boy, my shoes (boots), pads and ball were all "FIFA regulation" compliant. All the rules we played by came from the FIFA official rule book. 
FIFA is and continues to be the face of the world's game. The current controversy centers around the revelation of a culture of corruption and abuse in which the people charged with leading FIFA have systematically and consistently used their positions to enrich themselves while encouraging those seeking their endorsement to "pay to play." On top of that, we have seen those abuses mushroom into the debacle that is the very human tragedy of the current plan of staging the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. Allegations of unsafe working conditions, dangerous venues (to players and to obeservers), human slavery and more have tainted the game... It's ugly, and the conflicts that now arise as the allegations are resolved have revealed deeper tensions between countries and regions. The arguments over Sepp Blatter's resignation are only escalating conflicts he used to maintain control over a corrupted system that he has successfully exploited with his cohort for decades.

And now, that is a problem. It's a problem because like any human institution FIFA is vulnerable to human foibles, and to the corruptions that arise when we lose touch with our scruples and the understanding that we are for others, first...before we are for ourselves.

Playing football affirmed that truth for me. I learned it as a vital and central component of my faith life at the foot of my Sunday School teachers, pastors and mentors...but it gained physical expression on the football pitch when I was a teenager. I learned to put the community I was a part of first, and to realize that one person can't win a match. It is the team that wins or loses, and it is the team that takes responsibility for its play. When teams fall apart, there is inevitable loss. When corruption invades the institution, we begin to live a lie that can quickly permeate and pervert the basic tenets of the life we are called to live. In the case of football, the game becomes corrupt. In the case of a life of faith lived in relationship to Jesus Christ, it is our humanity and its link to the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of our lives that withers, suffers and even in some penultimate eventualities, death.

When Jesus enters the temple during the Passover gathering in Jerusalem, he finds the forecourt of that blessed precinct cluttered with humanity doing business. The reality is that the temple economy had to be there as the Romans' domination of the community had forced the buying and selling of offering animals and the exchange of image-laden money for appropriate image-less temple scrip the necessity. Still, what should have been a place set aside for all people to be closer to God had become a teeming marketplace.
What was it that set Jesus off, prompting him to grab a short length of rope, knot the end and use it as a goad as he overturned tables, kicked displays and drove the money changers and merchants out of the temple's forecourt? Was it the crying, the bleating of animals being haggled over? Was it an errant thumb that found its way onto the scale as a merchant weighed coinage for changing? Was it the scandal of Roman domination and the distortions to the basic weave of life in the Holy City that had to be in place in order to avoid continued and enhanced suppression by the Imperial authorities?Whatever it was, corruption was named and expelled. Space was made for the proclamation that this "house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples."That's the tough call as we seek to address corruption in our human institutions. Be it football or the life of faith. 

Jesus' actions in the temple forecourt remind us that we are called into community. It also challenges the assumption that we are to accept corruption and the manipulation/exploitation of others as an acceptable status quo. 

FIFA's current state of affairs reveals just how bad it can get when we allow our human institutions to  become subject to all the toxins stated as anathema in the paragraph above.

The choice I face, as a child of God in Christ and as a supporter of a game that I love dearly, is to remind myself of why I am involved in both of those all-too-human of communities. Christ asks of us only that we be willing to live and walk with integrity; and when we fall into corruption to repent and return to the right path. Football, and the virtue of good sportspersonship, asks the same in a more mundane way. Be "All In" with integrity. Don't exploit for your own gain or satisfaction. Seek the good of and for others, and realize that life in Christ (as is life in football) is bigger, more global and more timeless than any one person's claims of control. 

Play with and by the rules, and remember that you are in this to grow and to support your community...your team, your body and THE Body.



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