SOCCER AS MISSION

By Joseph Healey, M.M.

Maryknoll missioner in Africa tells why the World Cup has special meaning for him

The whole world is closely following the 2014 World Cup that started in São Paulo, Brazil, on June 12 and will end in Rio de Janeiro on July 13. Here in Nairobi, Kenya, and throughout Africa fans are glued to their TV sets and the Internet especially following the five African teams: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

Soccer is a passion on the continent of Africa as it is in Latin America, Asia and most of North America. When I first came to East Africa, I discovered that one of the best ways to connect with African youth is through sports, notably soccer.

If you want to start a conversation in Nairobi today, just mention soccer stars like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Didier Drogba from Ivory Coast, and you have everyone’s complete attention. People in Nairobi flock to the local sports bars, where on Saturday or Sunday each team has its own TV and shouting fans.

I teach a course on “Small Christian Communities” at one of the colleges of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi.

The course is in the spring semester, so I always announce the scores from the previous day’s African Cup of Nations soccer matches and get ovations from the students who support the winning teams.

I really believe sports can be a missionary apostolate, real evangelization, a genuine ministry to reach young people, not only in Africa but also around the world. In our Maryknoll parishes we encourage soccer teams composed of players from different ethnic groups, providing a teachable moment on equality.

I use many sports examples in my homilies and talks to emphasize teamwork, fair play, inclusiveness, opportunity, perseverance and hope. Star African athletes who have risen out of situations of poverty, broken homes and political unrest serve as role models. What a wonderful image the Olympics portray of athletes from over 200 nations competing peacefully and fairly.

Some years ago I was in London, England, and some high school students told me all about the map and history of Ivory Coast that they had learned. “Did you get that from social studies class?”
I inquired. “No,” they told me.

“That’s the African country of Didier Drogba, the famous striker of Chelsea.” Their interest in Drogba led them to research his homeland on the Internet.

As a longtime Maryknoll missioner in East Africa, I was excited when Bob Bradley, who is married to my niece Lindsay, was hired as the coach of the Egyptian National Team in September 2011 during the Egyptian Revolution. Despite the political unrest and violence, Bob and Lindsay stayed in Cairo and called for peace. Their visits to injured people in the hospitals made national TV. As Egypt won its games in the preliminary rounds, Bob emerged as a steadying force for national pride. One headline announced: “Bradley is a rock star bigger than Obama to Egyptians.”

Ghana beat Egypt 7–3 in the last qualifying match for the 2014 World Cup. But that evening a TV announcer on a sports talk show in Cairo said: “We thank Mr. Bradley for the amazing effort he gave to the Egyptian team. We all owe him words of appreciation for bearing with us through our difficult and harsh times.”

Now Bob and Lindsay’s son Michael is starting midfielder and a key player on the U.S. National Soccer Team at the World Cup in Brazil.

Though I can’t be there in person, I am leading the Michael Bradley African Fan Club in Nairobi, as I avidly watch the games on TV with other Maryknoll missioners and African friends. When Michael steps onto the field for the first game against Ghana in Natal, Brazil, on June 16, both his 2-year-old son Luca and I will proudly wear our No. 4 official U.S. jerseys with the name “Bradley” on the back.

Featured Image: Pope Francis gets gift from soccer stars Gianluigi Buffon (l.) of Italy and Argentina’s Lionel Messi; (facing page) Father Healey with grandnephew Michael Bradley, wife Amanda, son Luca.

Father Joseph Healey, from Baltimore, Md., has served in East Africa since 1968.

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About the author

Joseph G. Healey, M.M.

Father Joseph G. Healey, from Baltimore, Maryland, celebrates this 50th jubilee as a Maryknoll priest this June. He has served in Tanzania and Kenya, and this poem celebrates his mission to the people of East Africa.
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