When I was an adolescent I thought I was going to be a footballer. Instead, when I turned 13, I became a preacher. I told people about the great love that the Nazarene, Jesus Christ, had shown for humanity. But for what seemed the longest time, my becoming part of God’s team was prevented by a simple and yet very troubling question: is there football in heaven?
We played football on makeshift pitches at school or on a grass field close to my home. Sometimes it would be plastic and paper balls, other times imitation leather, yet other times the leather ball. We played every day. On Saturdays and Sundays we played the whole day, from around 9am to around 5pm or for as long as light lingered on.
I was an integral part of Noah’s team. It was Noah — 3 or 4 years my senior — myself and a bunch of youngsters younger than us. Now Noah was one of those truly gifted people who could do anything with the ball. He would come to the back to fetch the ball and dribble (or juggle) his way to the other goal. In this team I played at the back, keeping the wolves out, while up front Noah spread terror in the opposition.
We played mostly socially, even though at other times we betted small amounts of pocket money. Sunday, of course, was the day for the Lord, when the called went to His House from around 9. I wasn’t aware of the gospel according to Mexican legend Hugo Sanchez (also a Madridista, famous for his bicycle kicks); Hugo Sanchez chapter 3 verse 16 reads: “Whoever invented football should be worshiped as God.” Or the claims by British writer Anthony Burgess that “Five days shalt thou labour, as the Bible says. The seventh day is the Lord thy God’s. The sixth day is for football”.
For years the puzzle I posed at the beginning was never an issue. It soon became when a woman was hired by my mother to look after me and my sisters when she was away at work. The woman, then in her early 20s, was kind, soft spoken and multi lingual (she spoke Ndebele, Xhosa, Shona and English, of course). She was a first generation Zimbabwean, a descendant of South Africans who had trekked up to Zimbabwe in the 1950s or thereabouts, as missionaries or to look for opportunities.
Vatiswa (that’s not her name) went to a charismatic church, those churches for which proselytizing is a central tenet. As in the cliché about charity, she had to begin “witnessing” about Jesus at home. The preaching might have started with encouraging us to bless our food. To the uninitiated, that’s code for praying before eating. The issue came to a head when her preaching became less subtle, more direct. But I had a riposte which she didn’t have a response for: I was willing to go to church. When I die I wanted, of course, to be accepted into heaven. But I have one question: is there football in heaven?
The bible didn’t provide much in the way of clues. No matter how literally you read verses like “therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12 verse 1). There are pointers of a field and spectators congregated in a heavenly Soccer City but I can’t see any sign of the ball. Certain things are clear from that verse: you can not play football clad in overalls, for one. Clearly marked tracks seem laid out, but of the ball I can’t see any sign. In Revelations 19, there is talk of a white horse and a jockey whose name is “Faithful and True” — as all football fans should be (the Argentines say “you can change your wife, but your club and your mother, never”). There is no sign of the football; yonder, horse racing seems to be a pastime.
Let’s return to the actual football. I was quite tall for my age, gangly with long limbs. Whatever deficiencies I had in my game were more than compensated for in other ways. I was very good at football played in the air: headers, acrobatic kicks, keepy uppies (I could do up to a thousand using both legs. When I got tired using my primary leg, the right one, I would switch to the left). As I write this, I think of the mantra by the late Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough “if God had intended for us to play football in the clouds he would have put grass up there,”
I am older now and, presumably, wiser. But that primal question remains mostly unanswered: is there football in heaven? And if there is, does God himself play? And if he does, what position he plays?
Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon’s line “If God existed, he’d be a solid midfielder” may gesture at some truth. Perhaps Eric Cantona knows better. After the death of George Best, the Frenchman said “After his first training session in heaven, George Best, from the favourite right wing, turned the head of God who was filling in at left back.” God at left back? Was he running up and down the left flank like the Brazilian dynamo, Roberto Carlos? Or was Best such a nuisance that God couldn’t get past the centre line?
It’s quite possible he is a goalkeeper. The God who says (in Revelations 3 verse 7) “what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” seems like a good candidate to have between the sticks.
But Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, who might have been raised a Catholic, imagines God as a referee. There seems to be evidence in the bible: when Jesus returns, there will be a blast of the whistle… ok, ok, I exaggerate, a trumpet (“And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other”–Matthew 24 verse 31). Galeano likens the man with the whistle to “a tyrant who runs his dictatorship without opposition, a pompous executioner who exercises his absolute power with an operatic flourish. Whistle between his lips, he blows the winds of inexorable fate either to allow a goal or disallow one: yellow to punish the sinner and oblige him to repent’red to force him into exile.”