In ancient China a game called cuju (means "kick ball") was invented for military training purposes. The game involved kicking a leather ball through a hole in a piece of silk cloth fixed on bamboo canes. During the Han dynasty (206BC - 220AD), cuju had become a popular sport.
Fast forward to medieval England, an inflated pig's bladder was used for "mob football", involving an unlimited number of players from neighbouring towns and villages. The modern game of football was born.
With an estimated 3.5 billion fans, football (soccer) is the most popular sport on the planet. Many football leagues and tournaments around the globe display amazing athleticism, individual skills and teamwork. Football is such a joy to watch when the teams on the pitch play the 'beautiful game'.
Who would have thought that kicking the pig's bladder would evolve into a global sport that unites and divides the world? We will no doubt witness this more closely when the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Brazil in a few months time.
The one goal
The upcoming FIFA World Cup will once again bring the world's greatest football players to fight for the honour of World Cup Champions. So much is at stake on such a huge stage that some players may lose sight of their real purpose. Money and fame may cloud their judgment and the desire for individual success may get in the way of the real goal - winning the golden trophy.
In the same way, we often lose sight of the ultimate goal in life when we pursue 'good things' that have become too important.
Single-minded determination reminds me of Jesus. During His time on earth, Jesus drew a lot of attention from both the supporting and opposing camps. His fame was tremendous due to His character, teachings and astounding miracles. But Jesus never lost sight of His ultimate goal: going to the cross so that we might be forgiven.
He knew that His mission was just too important to put on the back burner. God demonstrated His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5 verse 8). How radical!
Football as a religion
In many places around the globe football bears all the characteristics of the ancient gods. The enjoyment of football has been elevated to the obsession of football. It has become a religion that demands total dedication to its own clan. The clanship is typically linked with particular people and places.
Take A-League for example. People in Sydney are expected to support either Sydney FC or Western Sydney Wanderers. Yet these two teams are fierce cross-town rivals! And if you are a Kiwi, you almost certainly support Wellington Phoenix, the only New Zealand team in the league.
The football ground is a temple where people worship their gods and boo the other gods. The rituals include shouting the same slogan and singing the same hymn as the 'service' progresses. It's amazing to see how people can be so united and divided at the same time!
The communion usually involves a lot of beer and fatty food. Fans wear club shirts, decorate their houses with club colours and read football magazines like the Bible. Some knows all the results and statistics like memory verses.
So what's wrong with all this? Nothing as long as it is done in moderation for pure enjoyment. The problem arises when this life pattern becomes too important. An idol is anything more fundamental than God to our happiness, meaning in life or identity. Idols are not necessarily bad things, but good things turned into ultimate things.
Is football a good thing? You bet. Is football your ultimate thing?
Football is a wonderful sport that can unite people all over the world. My prayer is that we do not turn our passion for the sport into an idol that gets in the way of spending time with God. Jesus said: "What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?" (Mark 8 verses 36 and 37).
I am looking forward to the FIFA World Cup this year. But I also know that all the excitement will be temporary. The players will be disciplined in their training to win the prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize (1 Corinthians 9 verse 25).
So let's run to God with purpose in every step. I am sure it would be okay to enjoy a bit of football along the way!
Daniel Jang is a senior advisor with Ministry of Health New Zealand. He is an experienced writer, speaker and mentor to Press Service International (PSI) community. Daniel holds an MA in Applied Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and GradDip in Theology from Laidlaw College.
Daniel Jang's previous articles may be viewed at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/daniel-jang.html