Many of us enjoy kicking a ball around with friends, but there’s a world of difference between that and playing professional football. What did it take for those men to reach the World Cup in South Africa? Extraordinary athletic ability, certainly, but that alone did not guarantee their spot on the roster. No player is chosen to represent his country in the World Cup final stage without having first put in a lot of hard work. Each player has endured years of rigorous, seemingly endless practice, suffered injury and pain, and had to rise above other obstacles in order to have a shot at the ultimate prize—being on the winning team at the World Cup. Those who make it to the final stage have risen to the top of a wildly popular and fiercely contested sport. Win or lose, coming this far is a tremendous achievement.
Most of the rest of us aren’t world-class athletes, but we can apply these players’ secret to success, as many of today’s self-help gurus and guidebooks advocate. And they aren’t the first. Even the apostle Paul referred to it. Comparing the Christian life to athletic achievement, he wrote, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection.”1 Paul practiced what he preached, so as his life drew to a close he was able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.”2
Perhaps no one exemplifies the blend of talent and tenacity that mark world-class athletes better than Pelé himself. Growing up in poverty in Três Corações, Minas Gerais, Brazil, he earned extra money for his family by shining shoes and honed his gift using a ball made from a sock stuffed with newspaper. Considered the best footballer of all time, he dominated the game for two decades and was named the top athlete of the 20th century by the International Olympic Committee, even though he never took part in the Olympics.
And one final thought before I go and check the latest scores: It’s natural to support our home team, but we should recognize the efforts of all the players, no matter where they’re from. With this type of competition, of course there are many more losers than winners. After the first stage of the World Cup, half of the 32 teams are sent home, as are half of the remaining teams at the end of each subsequent round until a winner is eventually crowned. Obviously the players who don’t make it to the end are disappointed, but they can take pride in how far they went and what they accomplished.
And we each have a chance to do the same in the game of life. Jesus doesn’t say the faithful will be rewarded in heaven with the words, “That’s great—you beat the competition!” but with, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”3He commends us for doing our part; for playing with character and commitment, for doing our best with whatever gifts and tasks He has given us, and for loving those who He has put in our path. That, I think, is the most beautiful game of all.
Hebrews 12:2 ESV / Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
2 Timothy 4:7-8 ESV / I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
Hebrews 12:3 ESV / Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.