Picture this. It’s a Saturday night in your city. Two young men grab a bite before a soccer game. Decked out in their team’s gear, they drink a few beers and tell stories about their weeks and share some hearty laughs. They arrive at the stadium and find their seats. Maybe get a little overheated at a controversial call. And roar with the crowd when that first goal is scored for the home team. After the final whistle, they head out and share a few last words. A simple hug and they part their ways.
This hypothetical scenario is so commonplace that it’s not particularly difficult to imagine. While for many this would be any ordinary weekend night, these rare yet privileged Saturdays that I share with my brother Jay are much more than a simple game night. They’re a miracle.
My older brother Jay and I had such a stereotypical fractious childhood that most attempts to describe it would be boring and trite. In hindsight, it’s difficult to remember what we bickered about other than contention Mario Kart races and whom to blame for the hole in the wall for which we mutually shared responsibility. As we entered our teens, I started to wonder if Jay and I would ever become friends. After all, we seemingly could not be more different. Jay was an athlete; I was a mathlete. Jay played Halo; I played SimCity. Jay listened to popular music; I listened to classical and church music. The only thing we did together was referee soccer together and follow the World Cup…which happens only every four years.
After graduating, we found ourselves living in the same city while I finished college. Our relationship consisted of a few periodic meals out together. The conversations were unremarkable: work, travel hopes, and perhaps a few stories of the past. I, a budding economist, seemingly had little in common with Jay, a geological engineer. Then, I saw a headline that changed everything, “Local entrepreneurs announce FC Cincinnati, a new professional soccer club.” The best part? Season tickets started at $50.
On an unseasonably chilly March evening in Cincinnati, my brother and I shared dinner in my college apartment and then attended FC Cincinnati’s inaugural match. A week later, another dinner and a match. I’m not sure if it was the record soccer crowds, early on-field success, or quality time with my brother that drew us back to soccer matches all summer. Regardless, we secured season tickets for the next season, a guaranteed 15 or so dinners and game nights together.
Eventually our pre-game dinner conversations shifted from soccer to hobbies and beyond. I found myself even enjoying my brother’s expansive knowledge of rocks, the universe, and electronic music. Our shared love for our hometown club brought us over the country to away games. Gradually, we started to travel together for non-soccer reasons too, culminating in a memorable trip in which each of us brought a best friend to Iceland. Our dinner conversations gradually grew more vulnerable and intimate. We revealed our deepest challenges and relied on each other for support. Somehow, through our love for soccer, my brother became one of my best friends.
Soccer was the vehicle for reconciliation between my brother and me. Amazingly, the regional buzz around FC Cincinnati attracted people from all parts of my life. Pre-game gatherings turned into a melting pot of the most important people in my and my brother’s lives. When FC Cincinnati was announced as the newest Major League Soccer expansion team, my brother and I were joined by a few cousins and coworkers, a friend of my brother’s, and one of my best friend’s dad. Not only did I celebrate Cincinnati welcoming a new major league team that day, but also learned how soccer can unite disparate connections into the most unexpected of communities.
Indeed, soccer has a mysterious magnetic power to bring people together. As I reflect on my years of following FC Cincinnati, I relish how random strangers and I hugged following a triumphant penalty shootout. I marvel at the movement—of the literal thousands of fans—joined together marching to the stadium for kickoff.
I daydream of what our Catholic Church would look like if we acted like an ideal soccer fanbase. I imagine a parish in which every person in the building greeted the person in the pew behind them as a fellow fan, or where we celebrated amazing gifts like baptisms or anniversaries with the same enthusiasm as a last-minute equalizer. I dream how those on different ends of the political or ecclesial spectrum could unite around mutual goals like how opposing fan bases share a desire for a fair, safe, and close competition.
Fans from around the world are converging upon Qatar. Living rooms, public plazas, and bars will swell with passionate crowds in the next month. Amid wars, pandemic, and ideological clashes, the world is certainly in need of reconciliation. My experience with my brother suggests that something magical can happen when people gather to watch the beautiful game.
I must point out that soccer has its shadow side. Just a few weeks ago, over a hundred fans died in a stampede following a soccer riot in Indonesia. This World Cup is without its controversy for Qatar’s treatment of migrant laborers. Alcohol abuse runs rampant among many sporting fanbases in the world. Sports, whether a player on the pitch or a fan in the stands, somehow tap into our emotional centers in immensely powerful ways. Self-regulation is necessary for sports to bring us together instead of sundering us apart.
In a few short days, the teams will kick off. Hundreds of millions will tune in to watch the world’s top footballers compete for their homeland. Some might accuse me of naivete for dreaming that soccer can bring the world together. But ten years ago, I never would have guessed that my brother would become a best friend. And I have soccer to thank for that.
Photos courtesy of the author.