Day 25: A Gayer Cup

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

-Luke 2:19

Amid all the celebration, Luke highlights Mary’s deliberate withdrawal from emotional exuberance. Perhaps she is an internal processor. Perhaps, as a woman who freshly pushed a baby from her body, she’s exhausted. Or perhaps she is mindful of the patriarchy that surrounds her as men surround her son. Perhaps she holds back because she knows that even though the baby before her is a salvation, she is not yet saved.

The World Cup gave us a fairy tale ending to one storyline, but there is another that feels vacuous and unsettled. Another men’s World Cup has passed without a single out, gay player (or coach). In spite of the solidarity armbands of Western Europe, the sport remains stunningly heterosexual. The queer fans and players return home to treasure these things in their hearts, holding back the fullness of their families and their joy. 

My one hope, if France had won back-to-back World Cups, was that a world-class player from a country that embraces sexual liberation with two World Cups under his belt might have the confidence–and the reputational buffer–to come out. My best case scenario was a French athlete publicly identifying as queer in the afterglow of all that awe. 

It might have been a pipe dream all along. I don’t actually know if any of the French players identify as queer. But I know in my heart that there are players and staff and ref who are treasuring these things in theirs because they are afraid to be fully themselves in public. Because all the institution has ever done is punish them.

My wish for the 2026 World Cup is that there is less pondering in hearts. More gayness on and off the field. More celebration. I hope that North America 2026 is the gayest men’s World Cup ever–which is to say, I hope there are at least two queer athletes. Or coaches. Or refs. Hell, I’d settle for Gianni Infantino coming out. And being celebrated for it.

In 2026, I hope that those who treasure all of this in their hearts do so because they want to, not because they feel they must.

An intersectional pride flag, with the horizontal rainbow rows punctuated triangles of black, brown, blue, pink, and white, to represent BIPOC and trans communities.
Pride flags are great, but creating cultures of inclusion and affirmation is even better.

Day 12: The Prophet Came Preaching

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’

-Matthew 3:1-3

The man who wore camel hair clothes and who ate locusts and honey was certainly disruptive in ancient Judea. Eventually, he ends up dead for criticizing King Herod’s incestuous marriage. But for now, he is growing up, leaving his mother Elizabeth and father Zechariah behind, and spreading rebellious ideas to the impoverished rural populace. But the kingdom tolerates a certain amount of dissent. Any expansive empire knows dissent is easier minimized than eliminated. 

In the Portugal vs. Uruguay group stage game on Nov. 28, North American broadcasts included a blur of blue-shirt racing across the pitch and the ref balling up a gay pride flag that the protester left on the field. Later, images appeared of the protester’s shirt, which read “Save Ukraine” on the front and “Respect for Iranian Women” on the back.  It was a strange but not unheard of disruption. 

The protestor, Mario Ferri, is an Italian minor league footballer who has made numerous pitch invasions since 2009. Initially, his protests were critiques of the Italian national coach, but evolved over time to human rights messages. Perhaps strangest of all is how the game has evolved to make room for him. He broke onto the field in 2010 and 2014. After he was tackled and taken into custody in Qatar, he reported that FIFA President King Herod arrived within 30 minutes to ensure his release, reminiscent of how Herod had previously shielded John the Baptist because he was “afraid of the people.” Afterwards, Ferri gave positive reviews of the Qatari police, noting that they offered him coffee and a croissant. John the Baptist left no record of croissants among the Roman guards.

The metaphor of Ferri-as-John-the-Baptist doesn’t reach very far (and Infantino-as-Herod extends only slightly farther). I don’t believe Ferri is preparing the way for Christ or is a prophet in the traditional sense. But his behavior echoes the prophetic, and reminds us that the empire will tolerate creative disruption. There are multiple forms of protest, beyond the Boycott FIFA movement which continues. It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what would happen if more of us protested as Ferri did. 
Preparing the way for Christ can take many forms. We can take cues from both John the Baptist and Ferri, carving out space for counternarratives in the empire. It is strange, sometimes dangerous, but Ferri’s habit of eating locusts and honey on the field begs for reflection. What are you doing to carve out space for counternarratives within the empire?

As 1 Corinthians 12 says, there are a variety of protests but the same spirit. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 7: The Victimized Tyrant

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

-Matthew 2:1-3

The sixth time the camera cut to FIFA President Gianni Infantino–on his phone, always on his phone–I thought: There is King Herod

King Herod is powerful, cunning, curious, insecure, throws great parties (sometimes with the decapitated heads of his enemies), and is perpetually a victim. Sure, he oversaw the deaths of a few hundred baby boys in Jerusalem (or a few hundred? thousand? migrant workers in Doha), but this was merely the necessary cost of progress.

King Herod is not, in fact, a very powerful king; he is the Jewish puppet king installed by and at the mercy of the Roman Empire. He is the representative of Julius Caesar. His job is to make the Roman Empire look both attractive and undefeatable. King Herod is simultaneously asserting power and abdicating it, and he plays this role very well, better than Infantino and his teen diary-esque monologue.

King Herod is frightened at the news of the child king. If there is a child in the world who is King of the Jews, then it means the delicate system Herod upholds is moot. If the Judean people do not need the Roman Empire, Herod’s wealth and dynasty collapse. 

Imagine that a player arose from the margins of World Cup teams–Messi, Mane, Suarez, Marta, take your pick–and rose to prominence as the greatest player in the world to never play in a FIFA tournament. Imagine this talented player moved as a teen through a prestigious academy training, built a rabid fan following, then left abruptly to travel the world playing pick up soccer, teaching ball skills to impoverished teens and providing them with the food and healthcare to make their neighborhood tournaments as compelling as professional tournaments. Imagine all of it was free. Infantino would absolutely be releasing the snipers to protect his monopoly. 

Throughout the Christmas story, watch how Herod chameleons from omnipotent tyrant to helpless middle manager. Watch how his attitude becomes a template for aspiring conflict-avoidant bureaucrats. 

And another thing: when Infantino hunched over his phone, he was never “checking the scores of the other game,” as the announcers apologetically explained. He was checking on the comfort of those to whom he has pledged allegiance.

If you think Gianni Infantino is persecuted now, wait until his daughter asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 4: All the Nations will Stream (to) It

In the days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations will stream to it.
Many people shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that God will teach us the ways,
and that we may walk in God’s paths.”

-Isaiah 2:2-3

I will say loudly and publicly that the reason we pause our lives every four years is that we are watching the best soccer of the quadrennial and I know I am lying. This is my rationale for people who expect rational behavior. I know as well as any fan that a national team that comes together a few days a year will never play as elegantly as the club teams that play together day in and day out. We are unlikely to see such a concentration of talent on a national team as we do in the bankrolled European leagues. The conceit of the World Cup is the limitation of our nations, how 30 countries are eliminated and cheering for someone else. The act of collective national joy allows for unique bridge building between nations.

I used to think this passage in Isaiah described a moment where God unifies humanity by calling all peoples to a uniquely holy place. Today, I notice how it is only because people are “streaming (to) it” that they say “let us walk in God’s paths.” The act of noticing each other’s nations is what inspires them to keep surging up the mountain to God’s house. We are all in this together.

It is easy to read prophetic texts like Isaiah 2 as waiting around for God to do something grandiose to heal humanity, but perhaps what God is doing is creating the conditions for us to learn from each other. To perform small acts of healing together. Walking in the paths of God means not only learning to notice God, but noticing the best of other cultures and adopting those practices. 

This is not to say that the stadiums are temples of God–vanity construction projects won’t save us (*cough* Solomon’s temple *cough*). Or that the World Cup resolves geopolitical conflict. But the magic of the World Cup is that it is difficult to sustain nationalism when we all bring our joyful selves and cultures to the same place. The more nations you are connected to, the more you enjoy the games. And we catch glimpses of God in the way that a melting pot of nationalism begets the collapse of national identity.