Why I’m Watching World Cup

I was never a soccer fan.

In first grade, my parents signed me up for a local team. Let’s just say my biggest contribution was eating a fair share of orange slices during the break times. One day, they bribed (umm…motivated) me, saying they’d give me a dollar if I made a goal. The next game, my one shot attempt went straight to a player on the other team who, confused, kicked it into his own goal.

My parents gave me fifty cents.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned why they signed me up: a parent conference with my first grade teacher. “Japanese school? He’ll never use that. Put him in something more practical, like a team sport.”

Boy, if I could talk with that teacher now.

That was the last time I played soccer. Until 2010.

Kellen and Becca Hiroto, missionaries in Malawi, had just dropped me off for a few nights in the small village of Chamadenga. It was part of a one month vision trip, to learn about their work with Bright Vision Orphanage. There I was, the only “white” man, kindly referred to as “Jackie Chan” by the children. That was about the only word I understood. And while my first generation selfie-stick entertained for the first hour (missionary mistake), I had no clue what to do next.

Had it not been for a soccer ball.

To be more precise, it was about two dozen used plastic bags, tightly wound into a ball.

I came in order to be educated, and for the next four days these barefoot boys and girls took me to school. Never had I seen such fancy footwork on such small feet. The only thing more graceful than their swift steps and strides were their smiles. And though I’m sure my striking was disappointing (especially when they’re expecting Jackie Chan), I was able to enter their world for a few hours each day. All thanks to a soccer ball.

That same trip, I headed down to Cape Town, South Africa for the 2010 Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization. Coincidentally, Cape Town had just hosted the FIFA World Cup, with banners still raised high on several street lamps. About 4,000 people gathered from around the world for Lausanne. 400,000 for the World Cup. (Note: the most recent Olympics in South Korea had about 80,000 foreign visitors.)

Fast forward three years and I’m at a restaurant with my Japanese roommate on a sleepy evening in Sugamo, when the room erupts in a thunderous roar.┬áNot wanting to be left out (as such is the greatest fear in Japan), I stand up alongside my roommate and join the chorus of cheers directed at the big screen TV. Keisuke Honda’s goal just tied the game with Australia, qualifying Japan for the 2014 World Cup. To this day, I’ve never seen my former roommate that excited.

Two nights ago, as Japan fought (and stalled) its way into the Round of 16 at 1am, nobody needed to tell me to stand. And nobody will need to tell me this Tuesday at 3am when they take on world ranked #3 Belgium.

Why am I watching the World Cup?

Because no other sport has connected me with the world like soccer.

It reminds this American that the world doesn’t revolve around America. (We didn’t even qualify.)

It reminds me of the Hirotos in Malawi, the children at Bright Vision, and the needs there I’m prone to forget.

It reminds me of Japan, country with the most orderly and organized cheering, the shortest team left in the tourney, and the place I call home.

And it reminds me of the promise that one day, all these nations and more will gather as one, cheering for more than a trophy, and beholding more glory than just a goal.

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