The gospel according to soccer – Part 2 – The universal language

Last week, in Part 1 of this series, I introduced the idea that soccer can teach all of us a lot about teamwork, leadership, and collaboration (among other things) in virtually every area of our lives, and invited you to join me this week to continue our conversation. Today, we’re going to take a quick look at why it is extremely important for anyone working in cross-cultural ministry to be fluent in the universal language of soccer (football for those outside of the USA).

According to a 2006 survey by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, over 265 million people around the world regularly played soccer that year–and this number is expected to be increasing every year.

World Cup LogoIt is estimated that over 1 billion people watched the final game of the World Cup between Germany and Argentina earlier this year.

Every year, nearly 400 million people watch the UEFA Champions League final.

Compare these numbers to the viewership for the Super Bowl earlier this year: about 112 million people.

These statistics simply confirm what we discover when we travel to nearly any country in the world: Soccer (football) is not only the world’s most popular sport, but it is played, watched, and understood by more people in more countries around the world than anything else, sport or otherwise.

Ivory Coast Civil WarIt is amazing to see how far a ball (or anything that remotely resembles a ball), a piece of land, and a couple goals can go to bring people together who have never met, are from different cultures, speak different languages, and who seemingly have very little in common. Soccer also can break down walls between people who are told by the world that they shouldn’t “mix with,” get along with, or relate to each other in society. It even has the power to stop civil wars, as we learned in 2006 when the Ivory Coast soccer team’s involvement in the World Cup caused a hiatus in its country’s civil war.

I have experienced the cross-cultural relational impact of soccer first-hand on many occasions. when I was playing with a soccer team in Ukraine in 1995. We were set to play one afternoon against a local team, but they didn’t show up. Fortunately, though, we were meant to play against another “team” that day–a band of gypsies who happened to be passing through the area that day at that particular time. They saw a team on a soccer field without an opponent and stepped into the fray.

No shoes, no uniforms, no game plan, no problem.

By the end of the game, which ended in a 1-1 tie (we weren’t a very good team : )), players on both teams had connected in ways that we never would have outside the confines of a soccer field. And that opened the door for great conversations after the game that likely never would have happened if we had simply seen each other on the street or at a park.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese examples are just a few of the reasons why it is so important for anyone working cross-culturally to be fluent in the universal language of soccer. Playing and understanding the game opens doors, creates immediate common ground, and gives us platforms with people in cross-cultural settings that might not exist otherwise. And our common language of soccer will also enable us all to have deeper understanding of the powerful lessons we can learn from the beautiful game, which can help us to collaborate and work together with brothers and sisters around the world in ways that we might never be able to do without a common vocabulary.

With this understanding of the importance of speaking “soccer”, we’ll get started with Lesson #1 in our series next week: All great soccer teams have common, well-defined goals and success measures.

Until then, I hope that you join the conversation with your thoughts on the importance of fluency in the world’s most universal language.