Like so many men of my disposition—thickheaded and slaphappy, enamored of guns and besotted with booze—I never feel more religious than I do when I’m watching sports.
It’s an old tradition. For Dwight Eisenhower, an atheist was anyone who watched Notre Dame play Southern Methodist University and didn’t care who won. Those of us who grew up in the Middle East share the sentiment if not the specifics; in Israel, the atheists are those who don’t care a lick for soccer.
As I prepare to spend the next four weeks watching the World Cup unfold, I look forward not only to entertainment but to elation. I was 10, after all, when, watching Diego Maradona score one of the most beautiful goals of all time, I became thoroughly convinced that there was a God, and that God—fond, no doubt, of baseball and hockey and other pastimes—reserved his true passion for The Beautiful Game. Four years later, watching the 1990 World Cup, I learned an even more profound lesson: Miracles, Roger Milla taught me, happened.
Milla was 38 when the tournament started, a talented player past his prime. When Cameroon’s coach put together his team, nicknamed The Indomitable Lions, Milla was left out. Too old, everybody thought, washed up. But Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, intervened. Milla was his hero, and if the old lion had to go down, he should at least be given one more chance to roar.
The tournament’s first game pitted Milla and his team against Maradona’s Argentina, the defending champions. Most of my friends didn’t even bother watching; one of them joked that it would be like watching the Los Angeles Lakers play our junior-high team. But I’m a zealot, so I tuned in. And I screamed as Cameroon won, thanks in large to Milla’s spectacular plays. A week later, when Cameroon faced Romania, the streets of Herzliya were empty, as was the case in so many towns across the world. We all wanted to watch Milla. He scored twice, and after each time he ran to the goal post and did a crazy jig—half rain dance, half epilepsy attack—that became his trademark. The next day, at school, we all pretended we were Roger Milla.
Milla’s fairy tale lasted a while longer. When Cameroon advanced to the next stage of the tournament, he scored another pair, deposing the heavily favored Colombians. Only a tight game against England in the quarterfinals curtailed Cameroon’s aspirations.
The Bible, of course, is notoriously short on soccer matches, but I’ve no doubt that had he been around to watch Milla play, the prophet Samuel would have been pleased. Here he is, in this week’s haftorah, addressing the people on the occasion of King Saul’s coronation. A king, Samuel famously argued, was an abomination—God himself had anointed all of Israel as his “kingdom of priests,” and a kingdom of priests needn’t have any other king but God himself. Like Milla, however, Samuel needs one more coup de grâce before going gently into the good night: He calls on God to summon thunder and rain. “All the people,” the haftorah tells us, “greatly feared the Lord and Samuel.”
What, we may ask, was the purpose of Samuel’s parlor trick? Moments later, after all, the skies turned bright once again and the coronation proceeded as planned. Why bother with miracles if defeat was preordained? Because, often, it’s the miracles we remember best. Few soccer fans today can even recall who won the tournament in 1990—it was West Germany, in what is largely considered one of the worst finals in the cup’s history—but nobody could forget Roger Milla and the Lions of Cameroon. Similarly, when Samuel was done conjuring the elements, it was less the flesh-and-blood king his listeners had on the mind—though the flesh-and-blood king was the one who would rule them for years to come—but God.
Such are the ways of the Lord, and such is his relationship with us, his chosen people. We ourselves are a bit of a miracle—a tiny nation that survived the trials of time, the least-likely candidates for grace, never the mightiest but frequently the most memorable. Like Roger Milla, our mandate is not so much to triumph as it is to inspire.
I’ve lived through this myself: After the World Cup of 1990 ended, I finally took to playing soccer. Watching Maradona dominate the tournament in 1986 was great, but it wasn’t much by way of motivation. Maradona was clearly superb; no number of hours spent dribbling the ball were going to make me even a fraction of the footballer he was. Brazened by his immense gift, he ended up bloated, face down in a pile of cocaine. But watching Milla was different. Everything about the man—old, flawed and wonderful—suggested that presence of mind and dedication could drive talent much further than it would have gone on its own merit.
This is the logic that drives religion. It’s also the logic that drives soccer. Starting today, and for the next month, the two, as far as I’m concerned, are the same.