Shortly after Mexico wrapped up a scoreless game against Brazil in its second appearance of the World Cup, memes of Mexican goalie Memo Ochoa started flooding my Facebook feed. In them, he was portrayed as San Memo, wings growing from his back, a halo around his head, his body wrapped in a cloak. Someone even updated his Wikipedia page to read that he was the Mexican Jesus.
Ochoa had the game of his life, shutting out every attempt the higher-ranked host country made at scoring, and Mexican soccer fans, for whom the sport is nothing short of a religion, have made him their new deity. Even Brazilian defender Dani Alves jokingly told reporters that he thought the Virgin of Guadalupe must have been in the goalie box with him that day.
Memes and jokes aside, soccer, or football, as the majority of the world calls it, has a profound spiritual component. It is not unusual to see players make the sign of the cross before taking the field, and goal celebrations often bring fans and athletes to their knees. Diego Maradona, the legendary soccer player from Argentina, has even credited the hand of God with helping him score a goal that led to his team winning the World Cup in 1986.
For Gabriela Ortiz, an Argentinian and avid soccer fan who has lived in Charlotte for seven years, incorporating religious rituals into her support of the Albicelestes is a tradition. "I'm a devotee of the Virgin Mary," she tells me. "Every day, I light a tea candle for a small figurine of the Virgin I've had since I was in my early 20s. When the national team plays, I light a special candle, a bigger, scented one." Growing up in Argentina, she remembers her brothers draping their soccer jerseys over her family's statue of the Virgin and giving the deity a special spot in their home's living room during World Cup tournaments.
Argentinians are feeling especially blessed this year with a Pope that hails from the South American country. Although Pope Francis has promised Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff neutrality during the World Cup, Ortiz believes that the soccer-loving head of the Roman Catholic Church suffers along with every other Argentinian each time their team takes the field. "Even if he doesn't come out in support for our team, it can't hurt for the Pope to be from Argentina," she says.
Instead of praying for or backing any particular country, however, Pope Francis sent a message of peace and solidarity to the fans and athletes at the World Cup. "To win, we must overcome individualism, selfishness, all forms of racism, intolerance and manipulation of people," he said.
The Church of England, on the other hand, has taken a bolder approach and released five official World Cup prayers. Two of the prayers are specifically for the English team. One states, "God, who played the cosmos into being, please help England rediscover their legs, their eyes and their hunger: that they might run more clearly, pass more nearly and enjoy the game more dearly. Amen." The other is simply, "Oh God..." Unfortunately, their appeal to a higher being was of no consequence. England lost its first two World Cup matches and will not be advancing to the knock-out stage.
In my own home, where World Cup fever has my 2-year-old running around kicking every round object he encounters and incessantly screaming "Goooooooooooal," a trick he learned from the announcers on the Spanish channel (the only acceptable media platform on which to watch the tournament, in my opinion), we've also taken to asking for divine intervention when it comes to team USA.
At the end of our traditional prayer blessing our dinner the evening USA was set to play Ghana, we tacked on a quick, "and also, God, please help USA to win." Who knows if that didn't have something to do with our historic 2-to-1 victory that night? The Portuguese may have been praying more fervently in their game against the U.S. on Sunday, though. A tying goal in the last 20 seconds of stoppage time? That was nothing short of miraculous.
While it's impossible to know whether our pleas for divine intervention have any effect on game results, one thing is certain: soccer fandom transcends the physical world. Whether we're making light-hearted jokes or performing an actual religious ritual, the world cup makes mystics of us all. And for those of us who do believe and have heard over and over again that God makes all things beautiful, it's no surprise that football is known the world over as the beautiful game.