Until traveling abroad, I was never a huge soccer fan. Like most Americans, I wasn’t born and raised watching the sport.
But in most countries across the globe, soccer is king. By far the world’s most popular sport, soccer has an estimated 3.5 billion worldwide fans – the most passionate of whom seem to be here in Brazil during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
During the past month, I’ve witnessed a fervor for sports I’ve never experienced during five years covering both college and professional sports in the United States: people moved to tears at the sight of watching their countries compete on the world’s biggest international stage – a stage bigger than the Winter Olympics, and second only to the Summer Olympics (which, ironically, will also be in Rio de Janeiro in 2016).
Naturally, the size of the World Cup platform and international importance of its games give rise to heroes, goats, moments of pure joy, disappointment and most importantly, the development of role models. And of the 736 soccer players that represented 32 different countries in the World Cup, most were professed practicing members of Roman Catholicism or a Christian faith.
While walking through the streets of Salvador, one of Brazil’s 12 World Cup host cities and site of the United States’ final game last week against Belgium, I caught up with Roman Catholic fans from the U.S., Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica to find out the players they most admired as models of faith:
Carl Breidenich, 25, a frac engineer in Dallas, Texas, spent three weeks in Brazil attending several World Cup games in the northeast part of the country. Breidenich, whose Patron Saint is St. Michael the Archangel, looks up to United States´ goalkeeper Tim Howard (pictured right), not only for Howard´s World Cup-record 16 saves against Belgium, but also for the goalkeeper’s commitment as a Christian living for Christ.
“He´s like a rock back there,” Breidenich said of Howard. “Not just as a goalkeeper, but in his faith, too.”
Rosa Saback, 51, an active parishioner at Paróquia Nossa Senhora da Luz (Our Lady of the Light Parish) in Pituba, Bahia, works as a government tour guide in the neighboring city of Salvador. Experiencing her first World Cup in-person, Rosa had tickets for all six World Cup games played in Salvador from June 13 to July 5. Rosa admires fellow Bahia native Daniel Alves (pictured left below), a defender for Brazil´s national team, for acknowledging his faith in his on-field accomplishments.
“He’s very loyal,” Rosa said of Alves, speaking in Portuguese. “He always thanks God for any success he has.”
José Gabriel, 29, and Fernanda Nascimento, 22, friends from Paróquia Rainha dos Apóstolos (Queen of the Apostles Parish) in Cornelio Procopio, Paraná, visited Salvador to watch the United States vs. Belgium. Passing though Catedral Basílica Primacial São Salvador (the Cathedral of St. Savior), José and Fernanda lauded Brazilian goalkeeper Júlio César (pictured right below) for his demonstration of Christian faith through perseverance and sportsmanship.
“He didn´t play well last World Cup,” José acknowledged in his native Portuguese, “but he always believed in himself and the team.”
“His faith is evident in how he conducts himself,” Fernanda added, “and he has won our country´s confidence as a result.”
Nicolas Bothe, 30, from Bogota, Colombia, planned on staying in Brazil for an entire month while attending his first World Cup. In Salvador to watch Colombia vs. Brazil at FIFA FanFest (outdoor sites with giant screens for fans to watch games), Nicolas commended his country’s entire team for their collective Catholic devotion.
“They’re all strong Catholics,” he said of Colombia’s players. “All of them praise God, their families and give thanks.”
When asked to pick one player in particular, Bothe referenced striker James Rodriguez (pictured left), the World Cup’s leading goal scorer heading into the quarterfinal round.
“He’s the most dangerous player right now,” Nicolas said before Colombia’s loss to Brazil, “and he has the brightest spotlight to demonstrate his faith.”
Patrick Steinberg, 21, from Santa Ana, Costa Rica, traveled to all of Costa Rica’s five World Cup games with his two older brothers. In Brazil since June 1, Patrick was surprised with his team’s success, and was hoping they’d make it to the championship game in Rio on July 12.
“It’d be a dream for Costa Ricans,” Patrick said in Spanish, before Costa Rica’s loss to Holland in the World Cup quarterfinals. “I’d do anything to get a ticket for that game.”
A college student studying political science and sociology, Patrick looks up to Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas (pictured right) as both a leader and model of his Catholic faith.