The Catholic roots of the World Cup

Spectators at St. John’s Catholic Club in Kansas City, Kansas, celebrate Croatia’s win over Russia. Leaven photo by Jay Soldner.

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven

The 21st FIFA World Cup is the most watched event in the history of sports.

With 3.2 billion people tuning in, it outpaces even the Olympics.

As you cheer for your favorite team over the next week, it might be nice to know that this world-renowned tournament is rooted in the precepts of the Catholic faith.

It all started in 1891 when Pope Leo XIII issued what is considered the first major encyclical on social justice entitled Rerum Novarum.

A commentary on the inequality that existed in Europe as a result of the Industrial Revolution; the document specifically focused on the deplorable treatment of the working class.

Jules Rimet, a devout Catholic in France at the time, was so moved by the pope’s words he helped form an organization to provide social and medical aid for the poor.

He was only 17.

Rimet went on to serve in the First World War and came home with a global view of the disparity that existed between nations.

Still an ardent Catholic, he longed for a way to promote peace.

One thing Rimet recognized from his world travels was a phenomenon that seemed to cross the boundaries of culture, race and society — sports.

He saw sports as a universal interest that didn’t require participants to share language or politics; and he had a dream of uniting nations by organizing a world-wide sports competition.

A founding member of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Rimet returned from the war to become its president in 1921.

Under his leadership, FIFA proposed a world championship for national soccer teams.

In 1930 the first World Cup was held in Uruguay; and Rimet traveled to the event with the World Cup trophy in his bag.

The tournament has been held every four years since then, except in 1942 and 1946, because of the Second World War.

You can see the fruit of Rimet’s efforts in our own country today where so many nationalities co-exist, and people from all walks of life gather to cheer on World Cup teams from various countries.

Last Sunday Croatia fans filled St. John’s Catholic Club in Kansas City, Kansas, to watch Croatia defeat Russia.

They’ll gather again this Wednesday to see Croatia battle England.

Rimet would be happy to see these Catholic fans celebrating together in a country far away from the land of their heritage.

He’d also be pleased with the first-ever Vatican document on sports released last month, “Giving the Best of Yourself.”

In the section titled “The Church is at home in sport” it states:

Sport is a context in which to concretely experience the invitation to be an outgoing Church, not to build walls and borders, but squares and field hospitals. More than many other platforms, sport brings together the downtrodden, the marginalized, the immigrant, the native, the rich, the powerful and the poor around a shared interest and at times in a common space. 

In a letter responding to the document Pope Francis said, “We can see the value of sports as a place of unity and encounter between people.

“We reach great results, in sports as in life, together, as a team.” 

Jules Rimet served as FIFA president for 33 years.

In 1956, the year he died, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize because of his part in instituting the World Cup tournament.

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