Day 19: Loved with an Everlasting Love

“At that time,” says the God Almighty, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”

-Jeremiah 31:1, 3

If you’re a certain type of soccer fan reading this Advent series, you have one question: When is she going to talk about Mbappe?

Let’s talk about Kylian Mbappe. I don’t mean the endurance to weave the ball through three Moroccan defenders as a metaphor for God accompanying you through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (although you can take that if you want, it’s free). I mean the player who pulled a Hunger Games-esque move and, after playing and winning a brilliant game, exposed the farce of the rules of play. Mbappe is like Jesus: they both understand how to use a t-shirt for ironic effect.

In Matthew 5, Jesus advised that when someone asks for your cloak, you should give them your shirt. Yesterday, Mbappe celebrated his nation’s win by pulling off his shirt and putting on the shirt of his opponent and club teammate Achraf Hakimi. There is an irony in both stories, a deliberate construal of tradition to expose the hypocrisy of the system.

Jesus knew that the only person who would ask for your cloak was a debt collector, and only if you had no money and no other asset to your name. However, to add your shirt to the exchange was a cultural taboo–because in Ancient Near Eastern culture, to see someone’s nakedness was a shame to the viewer, not to the naked person. Jesus repurposed a cultural shame of bodies into a shame of exploitative lending practices. Thelogian Walter Wink called this Jesus’ “sponsored clowning.”

Mbappe sponsored clowning when he took the soccer tradition of swapping shirts with opposing players and used it to undermine our concepts of nationalism and team loyalty. As soon as he made the swap, he tugged the smaller man’s red shirt over his torso and ran to join his teammates at the goal line to rejoice with the fans. He took his teammate’s hand and did his job: he celebrated. But with a dash of irony: one red shirt among France’s navy blue, a Frenchman of Cameroonian and Algerian descent in a Moroccan shirt, as if to say isn’t this a silly way to make teams? As if to say we don’t play against each other, we play against FIFA. As if to say, they could have as easily been here. As if to say, our win is in how we treat those who lose. As if to say, I have loved you with an everlasting love.

Kylian Mbappe with both hands raised in fists of joy, smiling wide and wearing a half-pulled on red Moroccan jersey that says Hakimi.
At least a tiny bit of his joy is from thinking about Gianni Infantino resigning in disgrace.

Day 15: Morocco, Magnificat, Caveat

God has shown strength with an outstretched arm;
God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
 The Creator has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.

-Luke 1:52-54 (edited for inclusive pronouns)

Apparently the Mother of God is a fan of the Moroccan football team. Yesterday, Morocco celebrated their first trip to a World Cup semifinal, the first African nation and the first Arab nation to reach a World Cup semifinal. The lowly are lifted up. Our souls are filled with joy.

Podcast host and actor Brendan Hunt recently observed that the greatest predictor of whether a team reaches semifinals is whether they have been to a semifinal before. The last time a team reached the semifinals that had never been to a semifinal before was in the year 2002, two-thirds of Jesus’ lifetime ago. In that tournament, South Korea and Turkey both advanced and played a stunning third place game that was a formative moment in the summer before high school (coincidentally, the same summer I was called to be a pastor). The World Cup is stacked in favor of the winners, down to the design of the draw spreading out the top 7 teams during the group stage.

A happy Moroccan woman with a green star on her right cheek, wearing a green hijab and red top, lifting 2 fingers as she grins at the camera.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 Notably, Morocco is the team with the greatest number of players born outside the country they represent, with more than half born outside its borders. This includes the great penguin dancer Achraf Hakimi, born in Madrid to Moroccan parents, trained in the youth academy at Real Madrid, and now playing for PSG. Over half the Moroccan team plays in Europe. Morocco’s success is inextricable from the greed of the Eurocentric neocapitalist sports entertainment industry. As Michael Moore said in the 2005 film Bowling for Columbine, “they’ll sell you the rope to hang themselves if they think they’ll make a buck on it.” The European club soccer empire has hung themselves and made a buck on it. 

Most likely, the empire will rise to rule us again. But for now, we glimpse an upside down world in which this tournament really, truly, is for everyone. It is the whole world’s game.

We love the image of the powerful brought down from their thrones–not only because we have never seen Cristiano Ronaldo’s features in exactly that expression, but because the loss of the powerful is inextricable, in Mary’s song, from care for the marginalized. Excess is erased and sufficiency abounds. 

Morocco’s win reignites the hope that we can transform that Babylon of governance, FIFA. It also gives us hope, at least symbolically, that FIFA may yet be pressured to compensate the families of workers who died to create this tournament and its idolatrous temples. 

The underdog’s win feels so good because it is as Mary said. We don’t tear down the powerful from their thrones for the sake of tearing them down, but because it is a prerequisite for filling the hungry with good things, for restoring the most basic of dignities to the most marginalized of communities. May it be so.

A crowd of about 60 Moroccan football fans standing shoulder to shoulder in rows, in what appears to be stadium seating. All the fans are standing, and one row holds a set of gold, inflatable letters that read MOROCCO.
Moroccan fans in 2018 now have even more reason to celebrate (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons).