By David Alton
There was speculation this week that Ronaldo, the Brazilian footballer, had sought the intercession of Our Lady whilst recovering from a series of debilitating injuries. With Ronaldo’s Brazil recently crowned worthy winners of the World Cup for a fifth time one of the most enduring images of the tournament for me will be the picture of the euphoric Brazilian team and coaching staff huddled together in prayer after the final whistle.
In the immediate aftermath of the final whistle, amongst all the Brazilian celebrations the television cameras focused upon approximately four Brazilian players who had knelt down on the pitch to give thanks to God for their triumph. It was clear that the commentators did not know quite what to make of this.
Shortly after, this small huddle of players was joined by almost the entire Brazilian team and coaching staff for a very powerful act of prayerful witness. The commentator made some vague reference to the Brazilians giving thanks to a ‘higher power’ but it was apparent that he wanted them to move on to more ‘traditional’ forms of celebration. This was not something he was used to seeing.
It is difficult to imagine David Beckham and his teamates engaging in a similar public act of worship. This is not to question the religious beliefs that many of our Premier League stars may hold but the reticence of our footballers and sportsmen and women to witness in public to their faith, when compared with their counterparts in Europe, the United States, Africa, or South America is notable.
Anyone watching the World Cup could not fail to notice the number of footballers who bless themselves when entering and leaving the pitch. It even led to a peer observing during a recent House of Lords debate that “If crossing oneself and having deep spiritual values is productive in football, our coach needs to be told”.
Well, it has certainly proved productive as far as the Brazilian team is concerned. Five World Cups speaks for itself.
Success on a football field is not governed by the amount of time spent in prayer or the number of Christians on your team. But whether we like it or not, sportsmen and women – and particularly footballers – are idolised by the young today. Their example counts for a lot. The Holy Father, a goalkeeper in his youth, has granted audiences to numerous football stars and spoken on several occasions of the social benefits that can flow from sporting endeavour.
We live in a confessional culture in which we are used to sports stars and media celebrities laying open their souls to the press on intimate details of their private lives such as personal relationships and childhood traumas. Yet the press rarely seeks to learn about the individual’s religious beliefs – what really drives them. If our football stars, many of whom must be Christians, were encouraged to witness more in public to their beliefs, this would have a tremendous positive impact upon children and teenagers.
Ronaldo’s apparent decision to seek Our Lady’s intercession and the Brazilian team’s prayer of thanksgiving, seen by millions of people, represent powerful acts of Christian witness to an increasingly secular world. Is it too much to hope that our footballers in these islands might follow their example?