When the purpose of sport is reduced to winning and losing, we lose sight of why God has given some among us the athletic gifts to inspire and entertain, writes Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.
The beauty of sport is that it has a knack for asking or answering some of the deeper and more philosophical questions faced by humanity over the millennia. We ask questions such as: why do bad things happen to good people or why do those who don’t even try, prosper?
The Fifa World Cup currently taking place in Russia is an opportunity to ponder such questions.
The scene this time was the match between Argentina and Iceland on 16 June which was also the teams' first match of the 2018 tournament.
The match finished in a 1-1 draw, sending the Icelanders into raptures of joy, not unlike the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions that grounded flights across western and northern Europe for almost a week in April 2010.
Iceland, with a population of under 350 000, became the unwitting face of evil that sometimes wins the day.
Here is how.
Iceland made 89 passes throughout the match. This means that they made less than one pass a minute.
They had a 22.5% possession rate at the end of the match which is the second lowest in a World Cup match in the last 50 years.
This means that for the rest of the time they were just preventing the other team from playing. They had no desire to play, let alone win.
There is even a name for what Iceland did. It is called anti-football.
It is described as that lethargic manner of playing where the team is ultra-defensive and relies on a stroke of luck rather than their guile and talent to win.
It is fair to say that as a group of part-timers, they could not be expected to go toe-to-toe with their more accomplished and decorated opponents who included the likes of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero.
It could be said that they played to their strengths, much as David did against Goliath.
But other than that, the Icelanders came to spoil a party rather than contribute to it. They came to preserve what they already had – a point – and not add to it.
The most accurate biblical comparison that can be made is that they were like the servant in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) who hid the talents in the ground to keep them safe when the others were more enterprising with what was given to them.
We all know how unimpressed the master in the parable was with the servant for not being a little more entrepreneurial.
So severe was this lack of initiative by the little bugger that the master decreed an appropriate punishment be given to the servant. The Good Book tells us that he was thrown into outer darkness, a place “where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30).
By being so fixated on not losing, Iceland did not just try and preserve themselves, but they forgot the greater point of sport. They made light of their achievement as the smallest nation by population size, to qualify for the World Cup finals.
Speaking at the Opening Ceremony of a conference called “Sport at the Service of Humanity” which took place at the Vatican in October 2016, Pope Francis said: “When we see athletes give their all, sports fill us with enthusiasm and make us feel proud”.
“There is great beauty in the harmony of certain movements and in the power of teamwork. When it is like this, sport transcends the level of pure physicality and takes us into the arena of the spirit and even of mystery. And these moments are accompanied by great joy and satisfaction, which we all can share, even those not competing.”
To play like Iceland played defeats the purpose stated by the Holy Father. It is close to using banned substances or manipulating an outcome.
Perhaps therein lies the trouble with sport today. The win-at-all-costs (or avoid defeat-at-all costs) mentality is just too pervasive and normalised.
Modern sport embraces the ethically questionable view that the means justify the ends.
This view creates the false impression that true sporting heroes are only those who return home with medals.
By this warped view, the Spain and Real Madrid defender Nacho would be just a name.
Yet he is a special hero because he has lived with type one diabetes since he was 12 years old and was told that he should give up on the dream of playing competitive football, let alone of becoming a professional footballer. Today, he has won every club title available to a professional footballer. He is a hero on and off the playing field.
One can only imagine what he means to children who live with diabetes all over the world and who dream of playing on the big stage of whatever sport they partake in.
By praising the likes of Iceland who come to the big tournaments with no intention of doing their best, but rather focus on preventing others from showing the talents that God has blessed them with, we collaborate in the perversion of the spirit of sport.
Perhaps this group, seeing that it lives by the “I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (Matt. 25:25) mindset, also deserves its place where there is weeping and the gnashing of teeth.