On one level the World Cup in Brazil resembles lived religion with fans as ecstatic worshipers at the cathedrals that are the massive soccer stadiums. But on another level, the current games to crown the quadrennial world champion couldn't be more Catholic. Most obviously, the host nation, Brazil, is home to largest Catholic population on earth, and one of its most iconic symbols is Christ the Redeemer commissioned by the Church in Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s. Another Catholic country and soccer powerhouse, Italy, committed near sacrilege when RAI TV dressed the gargantuan Brazilian statue in Italy's instantly recognizable blue soccer jersey. The Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro is suing the Italian TV station for millions of dollars since the iconic Christ was photoshopped and flashed across the small screen without diocesan permission.
Brazil is also home to the world's largest Pentecostal population, but their relative absence from the Cup reinforces its Catholic tenor. In fact, the country's second largest Pentecostal denomination, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has called for a boycott on watching the Cup as part of a forty day "Fast of Jesus," which started just two days before opening game day. While there are five Evangelical players on the Brazilian squad many Protestants in the host nation and throughout Latin America are repulsed by the "ungodly" atmosphere at many games that often include heaving drinking, fights and even occasional murders, such as that of a Brazilian referee who was recently decapitated.
Beyond Brazil, the Cup is essentially a contest between Latin America and Europe in which the predominantly Catholic countries stand out. In Latin America only Uruguay and Honduras are no longer Catholic-majority nations. Mexico, home to the world's second largest Catholic population, and Colombia, historically one of the most devout nations, bring fans who ask the Holy Child of Miracles, among other saints, to aid in victory on the pitch. And of course, the dramatic novelty at this World Cup, is a Latin American pope who is an ardent fan of Argentine soccer. He's promised Brazilians to remain neutral in his prayers, but I'm sure we would all forgive him for an extra word with the Virgin of Lujan (the Argentine patroness) on behalf of star player Messi and company.
Although two European nations that aren't predominantly Catholic, Germany and the Netherlands, have played the best soccer so far, the participation of historically Catholic nations adds to the influence of the Roman version of the faith. Current champion Spain, and traditional powerhouses Italy, France, and Portugal don't have many of the Latin American style fans who ask the saints to perform miracles on the field, such as the Argentine star's, Maradona, infamous "hand of God" goal against England in which he pushed the ball into the net with his hand behind the back of the referee. While fans from these countries generally don't bring an active Catholicism to the Cup, their enthusiastic participation in the carnivalesque atmosphere that prevails during the month of the games adds to the Catholic vibe of the championship tournament in Brazil. Carnival itself, of course, is a specifically Catholic festivity, which was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese.
In addition to the Catholic flavor of the Cup, the event itself is eminently catholic (with a small "c") in that it is the most universal of games played by the great majority of the world. As an American who started playing in middle school in the 1970s when soccer was just beginning in the U.S., I always feel a great connection to the rest of the world through this, the most global of sports. Married to a Mexican woman and having lived and studied in Brazil, I'm fortunate to have three teams to root for. Hopefully Team USA won't make an early exit, as notoriously predicted by coach Klinsmann, but if they do I'll probably be left with at least one of the two largest Catholic countries, Brazil and Mexico, to cheer on to victory.
Follow R. Andrew Chesnut on Twitter: www.twitter.com/andrewchesnut1