An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.-Matthew 1:1-2
I love a good genealogy. A good, long, tedious phonebook of names that take you from the past into the present. I love the dry list that opens the book of Matthew, locating Jesus–the fresh new legs with so much promise–at the end of a long line of greats (which include both men and women). Reminding us that the kid may impress, but the kid doesn’t come from nowhere. It matters that the kid is shaped by and connected to those who came before. A savior does not emerge ex nihilo, but is someone who carries their history and lineage with them.
Football, like all modern sports, is a game of the moment. In the World Cup, every day a star is born, sometimes two, only to be washed away by the next day’s successes. We leap from present to present, letting the games blur and fade in memory.
That is why it was so profound when, at the end of Brazil’s rout of South Korea, they unfolded a banner wishing Pele well as the 82-year-old legend faced down COVID and cancer. It would be easy for the stars to keep the spotlight on the urgency of now, but instead, they turned back, reminding the world that there was a time when Brazil was not an immortal favorite to win the cup. There was a time, in 1958, where a 17-year-old named Pele was just some kid off the streets in the Brazilian equivalent of Nazareth.
This gesture connected across time, team, and lineage. As if to say, we know who we are because we know our history. Much like the Seleção’s recognition of Pele, Matthew’s list of generations roots us in a deeper story. The heroes we look at today stand not just on the shoulders of giants, but on the shoulders of humans, with their own mistakes and shortcomings and failures. When we are tempted to put the newest, youngest hero on a pedestal (I see you, Ramos), these lineages also remind us that no one is superhuman. These heroes will make mistakes, they will age and become ordinary, and if we treat them as gods we do a disservice to ourselves and to them.
Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo, Hamm, Henry, Zidane, Messi, [insert your favorite of the moment here]. The past matters. To forget the past is to forget that the game (and the world) has always been beautiful, with or without us there to witness.