Closeup — Juan Carlos Valerón

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Juan Valeron’s faith journey is a great example of how new believers often face trials early in their walk with Christ. As one of Spain’s most decorated professional soccer players for the past 15 years, Valeron has led his national team to big victories including two European Championships, the Spanish Cup, and the coveted FIFA World Cup (2002).

But his victories on the field have been hampered by family pain off the field, starting with the death of his brother at age 30, followed by the passing of his father.

“We were quite a united family, and losing him was devastating,” he shares. “It was particularly difficult to see my parents struggle. But God graciously cared for us, and I am certain that without His help, my parents couldn’t have coped with their loss. Unfortunately, the pain deepened when soon after, my father also passed away.”

In his pain, Valeron struggled with questions like, Why is this happening? And when he couldn’t find the answers on his own, he looked to God.

“He was the answer,” assures Valeron. “He showed me that good could come from painful experiences. During that time, one of my brothers came to know God, and from that point, my family’s faith has grown steadily.”

When the Arguineguin, Spain, native was a young boy, his goal on the soccer field was to play in the top division and reach elite status in Spain. But even after accomplishing great success, including the World Cup, he realized that without God, the victories didn’t give him contentment.

“I realized those successes weren’t really important,” he shares. “In fact, without God, they were worth nothing. But Jesus is everything. Just like the food we need to live, Jesus is the necessity in life. Once I had a personal relationship with Him, I wanted to be with Him. While I may still experience difficult times, I know God is with me, and therefore accept them with joy. And I know that someday, I will go to His presence and experience His glory.”

By Jenna Sampson 

 

 

Closeup — Lúcio

Spring 2014_closeup_LucioBrazilian captain Lucimar Ferreira da Silva (or Lucio as he’s known throughout the soccer world) was reminiscing about Brazil’s 2002 World Cup victory, his thoughts went back to the feelings he had when he helped his soccer-crazed country win the world’s most coveted title in sports.

It also caused him to think about the most important part of his life.

“In Brazil, everyone dreams of this,” he says of winning the World Cup. “Since 2002, I have been able to participate in this great desire. We were a great group and it was a very important moment in my life and in my family’s life. Once again, we had the opportunity to thank God for the whole world to see. Without a doubt, this was more important than the title.”

They showed the world their passion for God by taking off their jerseys and revealing shirts underneath that had short statements about Jesus and their love for Him.

In a brief conversation, it wasn’t uncommon to hear Lucio constantly thank God for every aspect of his life—from playing a game for a living, to having a wife, children and appreciating other simplicities of life.

He has played more than 100 international matches for Brazil, including a huge match in June 2009 when he scored the game-winning goal to help Brazil to a 3-2 comeback victory against the United States in the Confederations Cup championship game in South Africa.

“I think that the faith we had in ourselves during the Confederations Cup was fundamental,” he shared. “But above all, we recognized the power of God working in our lives.”

The focus was and is always on God, His mercy, how God has blessed him in so many ways, and how much he needs God despite seemingly having everything.

“I believe that the fact I play for a great club, play on the national team, the fact I have a wife and family who support me, just shows me that I need God all the more,” says Lucio. “Without a doubt, today I can say that God has done things in my life that I never imagined. As a professional, playing on great clubs, (winning) titles, having a wife and children who are healthy and walking in the same path towards Jesus, and understanding what God has done for us, the love He demonstrates for us every day, and His mercy in our weakness and in the fact we are sinners. I believe God shows true love when we fail, and He loves us and takes care of us just the same. I believe this is what brings us closer to Him each and every day.”

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine.

 

 

Feature story — Preacher In Cleats

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There is an hour-long video online titled “The Integrity of the Christian Faith Pt. 1,” featuring pastor Ebo Taylor and Cameroonian soccer midfielder Eyong Enoh.  The video is produced by an organization called “Sons of God Intercessory Ministries (ICWC) Europe,” and as of March 10, 2014, the video only had 64 views.

The video is nothing fancy. The animations, in fact, by American standards, seem rather corny. A ticker reading the same sentence slowly slides across the screen the duration of the hour, and the backdrop looks like they are sitting inside an animated space shuttle. Oddly, it looks like it could be Emperor Zurg’s lair on Pixar’s Toy Story.

And yet, it is one of the deepest, scriptural videos you’ll find on the Internet featuring any international superstar like Enoh, the vice-captain of the Cameroon national team who has played in some of the world’s top leagues in both England and the Netherlands.

“To be alive is our calling to purpose,” says Enoh at the start of the video. “To be alive is our calling to divine destiny. Otherwise…at the time you get saved you would be immediately taken to heaven. But it’s not like that. There is a reason God allows us to be here. Because we were sent on an assignment. We were sent with a divine destiny to fulfill.”

It’s quite refreshing, actually, to watch something without all of the emotional gadgets used on us to stir our hearts—the videography, editing, music, dramatic pauses, etc., that have become all too predictable and almost mundane in today’s society. Instead, it’s a raw conversation. The only emotional thing in the video is the people, pastor Ebo Taylor and Eyong Enoh. They dive into Isaiah, II Timothy, the Gospels, and yes, even Revelation. They read from the Bible on the edge of their seats (and you can tell because their chairs keep squeaking). Enoh seems much more like an evangelist than a soccer player, preaching at times with the word-frequency of an auctioneer, always quoting Scripture, continually speaking of the Holy Spirit.

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“I remember praying one day and hearing the Lord say, ‘When you come before me on the day of judgment, I am not going to ask you how many games you played or how many goals you scored,’” said Enoh in an earlier interview. “’I am not going to ask how many trophies you won or how many people supported you. I will simply ask: What did you do for My Kingdom? Did the world see Me living in you? And, did you share the Gospel message that I came to die for the world?’ The Lord’s words really dawned on me. It is important to discover the reason we are alive, to function in it, and to make a difference with it.

“In Acts 17, Paul displayed great boldness while visiting the city of Athens. His life had already been threatened and he had been chased out of several other cities for preaching the Gospel, yet that did not stop him. In Athens, a city full of idols, he bravely called for repentance and spoke about Jesus openly. Because of Paul’s faithfulness and bold spirit, men’s and women’s hearts were changed and the Good News continued to spread.”

Ironically, the video is all about returning to the integrity of the Christian faith, and there is an overarching feeling that—despite the lack of editing technology and camera angles, despite the uncontrollable squeaks from their chairs and beeps from one of their wristwatches—this is exactly the way the Christian faith is supposed to be. Based on the Word and His Spirit. As simple, yet complex, as that.

“Once I encountered the message of Jesus and gave my heart to Him, I knew I had found what I was looking for because I felt peace in my heart—peace that cannot be traded for anything,” Enoh said. “I clearly remember realizing two very special things: there is a reason I am alive and not just another body in the world, and I am unique with a specific purpose that God has already designed.

“Jesus said to the disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). I have learned that my relationship with God is never-ending, and I am constantly aware of His presence wherever I am—even when playing football. I worship Him everywhere and in everything I do, including my effort on the pitch.

“I have also realized the main purpose of life is to talk about Jesus. God had given me talents and the ability to play football—a great platform to share Jesus. Through football I can reach people who look up to me in my country and people I meet through my career. It has become the pathway through which the Lord can use me.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum.

 

Feature story — When Soccer Becomes An Avenue

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To Japanese footballer Jun Marques Davidson, religion always seemed like far too complicated of a thing. The rules. The regulations. The structure.

Raised in Tokyo, Japan—a country where only 1 percent of its citizens are considered to be practicing Christians—Davidson was like much of the population. He had little interest in Christianity, even though his mother was a Christian.

Instead, he had his sights set on one thing: soccer. There were signs that he could be something special early in life, and at 15 years old he left Japan to play soccer at an international school in England. Success, money, and fame became his primary drive in life. Attaining superstar status in the soccer sphere became his goal.

But it was in England, while he was alone in a foreign country, barely able to communicate, hardly knowing anyone, that he realized there may be more to life than soccer.

“It was tough to be alone in a foreign country,” Davidson said. “But it was there that I began to understand my need for God. I started attending church on my own and learned more about what it meant to be a Christian. I committed my life to Him and found a peace and confidence I had not felt before. My purpose for going to England had been for soccer, but His purpose was to shape me for my future.”

After England, Davidson and his family moved to California to be together while he played soccer in high school. He was surrounded by other strong Christians on the team, as if God was bringing him to maturation after the revival he had in England. “Again God was shaping me by providing Christian fellowship and encouragement,” Davidson says.

Following high school, Davidson moved back to Japan to play professional soccer. His homecoming was like a clash of two worlds. When he left Japan four years prior, his heart and mind were in a completely different state. He was selfishly driven, determined to make a splash on the soccer scene to attain both money and fame. When he returned four years later, he was becoming more of a selfless person, and he wanted to use soccer as an avenue to impact others for the Gospel in a country that had hardly heard of Jesus Christ.

“I think God created me as a soccer player to do something greater, to serve God,” Davidson told Risen Magazine. “There are not many Christians in Japan, so it is very hard to follow and study and have the solid faith in Christ.

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“I believe God took me to England and to California to put me in a situation and environment where I saw a lot of Christians and people with great faith. And so that helped me inside as a person to grow and learn more about God.”

His return to Japan made him realize how much he had changed, how much work God had done in him, and how much God wanted to do something through him to impact others.

“Since giving my life to God, my perspective had changed,” Davidson says. “I began to think about how I could use my role to share the gospel. God was showing me that my career was less about me and all about Him.”

Since moving back to Japan, the defensive-minded midfielder’s performance has been steady. He spent his first three seasons in the second division of Japan’s J. League and helped his team earn a promotion to Japan’s first division in 2004. His next six seasons were spent in J. League Division I and followed by two seasons in lower divisions including a stint with the Carolina RailHawks in the States. He spent all of 2012 and 2013 playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer. He was awarded the Whitecaps FC’s “Jock MacDonald Unsung Hero Award” in 2012 for his consistent presence on the pitch.

“Serving God through sport is important to me,” Davidson says. “I try to share the Gospel, serve others, and be an example. It’s not always easy when the competition gets tough, but even then I seek forgiveness and pray God will use me. My career is in His hands and I seek to follow Him wherever that may lead me, even if and when it doesn’t involve soccer—for my purpose is to serve Him.”

In the offseason, Davidson does missionary work through a sports ministry group called Ambassadors in Sport, and at 31 years old, his heart and mind are in a much different place than they were 15 years ago. His life is no longer his own; it belongs to God. Soccer is no longer his own; it also belongs to God. And his surrender to a much better Author of his story has led to both purpose and peace.

Joseph of the Old Testament was a normal kid who God shaped into a great man,” Davidson says. “Even when his brothers sold him into slavery and his future looked grave, Joseph sought to live for his God. Then, when he was blessed with great power and influence, he used his role to help others and do God’s work.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum.

 

Feature story — Finding Strength in The Lord

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Clint Dempsey was in kindergarten when he discovered that he loved soccer. The exhilaration of scoring goals was exactly what he needed to deepen his love for a game that has taken him all over the world and allowed him to play at soccer’s highest level in Europe and in the United States.

“My parents had started me in the sport to help me learn good people skills,” Dempsey says. “Little did I know that the sport I loved and the skills I learned would later play a role in my relationship with God.”

Dempsey was 21 when he turned pro in 2004, the same year that he made his first U.S. national team and also earned Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year. One year later he was hoisting the first of two straight MLS championship trophies for the New England Revolution. Since then he has played in England for Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur, helped the U.S. win the CONCACAF Gold Cup, represented the U.S. in World Cup play and been named U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year multiple times.

Though soccer has been a huge part of shaping Dempsey’s life, a tragedy when he was 12 years old changed his life forever.

“I grew up in a Catholic family and would go to church with my grandmother every Sunday. Through her, I learned that faith was important,” Dempsey says. “When I was 12 years old, my life took a turn that would change me forever. My sister (Jennifer) died (from a brain aneurysm) and I was faced with questions about why things happen and what role God played in it all. For a number of years, I struggled and put distance between God and me. But He was faithful and patient and provided gradual healing and strength.”

Though he knew about God, he wasn’t actively pursuing God. However, a team Bible study in college at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., helped him learn about God more and understand what an active faith really meant.

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“In college, I joined a team Bible study. God’s Word brought me peace and a desire for a relationship with Him,” Dempsey says. “I found that questioning Him and searching for answers through Scripture helped me grow and gave me direction. Now my faith in Christ is what gives me confidence for the future. I know that through both good times and bad, He is faithful and will watch over me.”

He looks back on his college days and thanks God that he was a part of the Bible study, but he also looks back on that time and is thankful for something else—life.

One day, two of his teammates, Greg Griffin and Chefik Simo, asked him to go to a concert with them. Because he didn’t have much money, Dempsey told them he couldn’t go.

His lack of finances saved his life.

On the way to the concert, the car that Griffin and Simo were driving was in a wreck and had flipped over. An 18-wheeler hit the car and killed Griffin. Simo was injured to the point where he never played again.

Despite past tragedies in Dempsey’s life, it hasn’t made him pray for safety more often. It has deepened his perspective of life—that we don’t know when we’ll be gone and that we don’t have much time to make an impact in people’s lives—and also deepened his desire to please God.

“Today, I pray for strength to walk the road before me,” he says. “I play to the best of my abilities and am thankful for the many opportunities and amazing success He has given me. Through it all, I want to do right, not make mistakes, and live a life that is pleasing to Him.”

He does that by reading the Bible, which has given him insight and direction.

“God provides strength, even when circumstances seem impossible,” he says. “In Genesis, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many generations, but for years his wife, Sarah, was unable to bear children. Even as he approached one hundred years old, Abraham ‘did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God’ (Romans 4:20). Abraham’s faith was rewarded when God honored His promise and Sarah, at age 90, gave birth to their son, Isaac.”

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine.

 

Feature story — A Gracious Peace

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With four knee injuries in his career, it would be understandable if Marcos Senna was burned out, discouraged or disappointed with soccer.

But it’s quite the opposite for the Spanish soccer star.

“I have had four knee injuries, but with God’s help, I think I have coped with them well, and even experienced joy in the midst of them,” he shares. “I don’t know of another player with similar injuries who has been able to continue playing at the same level as I have. I give thanks, honor, and glory to God for the strength He has given me.”

“I am at peace. I know God has a purpose in our lives. If I am injured, it is for a reason that I am injured and I understand that I will get better in time. I understand that God…will keep looking after me. And for that reason I am very calm.”

Senna, who was born into poverty in Brazil and began playing soccer in the streets at age 6, became a Spanish citizen in 2006 after Luis Aragonés, Senna’s Villarreal CF coach, asked him to play for the Spanish national team.

“I was not going to give up my nationality by birth—Brazilian,” says Senna. “At that time, I thought it was the best move and a privilege to have dual nationality and the opportunity to play for Spain, one of the best teams in the world. The truth is that it has changed my life. It has been extraordinary.”

Senna, who played in two World Cups, helped Spain win the 2008 Euro Cup, beating Germany 1-0 for its first Euro title since 1964. Several publications named Senna player of the tournament after he helped Spain become the first team to go unbeaten in the Euro Cup since Germany in 1996.

From November 2006 until June 2009, he also helped Spain win or tie 35 consecutive matches, tying the mark held by Brazil, and helped Spain win a record 15 straight games during that span while also helping Spain to No. 1 in the World Rankings for the first time in the nation’s history. The streak ended in the Confederations Cup semifinal with a 2-0 upset loss to the United States.

“Winning the European Championship in 2008 was a highlight of my career and a wonderful celebration,” he says. “We eventually won on penalties. I knew that I would be one of the penalty-takers. We practiced penalties the day before, but on game-day we had played 90 minutes plus 30 minutes in extra time. I was exhausted and had cramps everywhere. Yet, when the time came, I was calm and felt God’s Spirit come on me, giving me peace and clarity. With His help, I was able to shoot confidently, score, and help Spain to victory. I knew God was in charge and had a plan for me to honor Him with this accomplishment.

“On the day of the final, I was completely focused on the match. It was a great day, especially with all of Spain sharing in the celebration. When we won, it was a time of great joy for all the players. Our lives will never be the same because of being part of winning the Championship. More importantly, my life has never been the same because of my relationship with Jesus.”

That relationship with Jesus began during a short stint with São Caetano in Brazil in 2002, and it has made all the difference in his life.

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“They invited me to a meeting and I went,” Senna recalls. “At that stage I did not know much about the Bible. I had been to church with my mother, but as I grew up I stopped going for some reason. I was not baptized or anything, but I knew some things from my mother and grandmother…I was 25 years old—nearly 26—and they invited me to the meeting. I liked it and I kept on going. Then eight months after I became a Christian, Villarreal signed me and I joined a church in Villarreal where I was baptized.”

Senna said that fame, money and other material things aren’t enough to satisfy anyone.

“If you are worried about anything, I do not think that money is the answer,” Senna says. “But God’s Spirit is above all things. God can give you happiness, peace and joy. Just talking about it makes me smile. This has made me very happy and changed my life in every way. It is the best decision that anyone can make in their lives.”

“Now I am truly at peace because I am certain God has a purpose for my life. If I am injured, it is for a reason. God is looking after me, and because of that, I am able to be calm and confident, and experience great joy.”

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine.

 

Feature story – Breath of Life

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Growing up in a family split in their religious beliefs, Alexander Samedov decided he would live his life in his own way and on his own terms.

Until trouble came and he was left searching for answers.

Samedov, who has represented Russia internationally on the U-21 and senior soccer national teams and has also played on several top Russian club teams, started having trouble in his soccer career and in his life. That’s when the questions started, first in his mind and then verbally.

“My father is a Muslim. He’s Azerbaijani. My mom is (Russian) Orthodox; she’s (ethnically) Russian. Going back to the very beginning, I grew up between two camps, so to speak,” Samedov shared in a television interview. “My father always told me that I was a Muslim. My mom didn’t agree with that.  I didn’t really go in either direction. I lived my life in my own way. But a time came when I began to have problems in my career, in my life. I had already reached the age to be thinking about those things. And then I met my current wife, Yulia. She was a believer; she went to church. Seeing my problems, she simply said to me, ‘Sasha, such and such…’ I came to church once, twice, and I understood.  My life began to change.”

Though Samedov admitted that “reading wasn’t the most important thing” for him growing up because he went to sports school and he “paid more attention to sports” than academics, he has loved reading the Bible since becoming a Christian.

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Though Samedov admitted not reading much while growing up, he has loved reading the Bible since becoming a Christian.

“I didn’t read much at all. I hardly had any free time,” Samedov says. “Because I went to a sports school, it didn’t really work out for me to combine academics and sports. I paid more attention to sports, and reading wasn’t the most important thing for me.”

But reading the Bible has been different. A welcome change from the arduous reading of lifeless words from the pages of a school textbook or any book for that matter.

“I don’t look at reading the Bible like reading other books, because the Bible is something spiritual; it’s about faith,” he says. “The Bible teaches us. It provides direction for our lives.”

Part of that direction has guided him in his career.

Samedov debuted with Spartak Moscow when he was 16 years old. Five years later he moved to Lokomotiv Moscow for four years before joining FC Moscow for two seasons. After succeeding there, he made a jump to a bigger club, Dynamo Moscow, for three seasons while also making his first senior national team appearance in October of 2011 in a victory against Slovakia during a Euro 2012 qualifier match.

That success landed him back at Lokomotiv the following season when he began excelling even more and became a regular starter and a fan favorite.

The questions he had about life had been answered, and the way he handled success and failure had now changed.

He looked to God, who spoke to him and guided him as Samedov read the Bible.

God has used Samedov’s wife to show him the right path.

“It worked out that way,” he says. Through her, I made it.”

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine.

 

Feature story — Fulfilling A Promise

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Growing up playing in the streets of Gioia del Colle, Italy, Nicola Legrottaglie had one dream: To play soccer and play at the highest level.

“I really didn’t dream of being anything else,” says Legrottaglie. “I started playing in my hometown, a small town in Apulia, in southern Italy. Kids thought about football because there were no other career choices, there were no other areas to dream about making it big. After all, we all played football in the streets, so it was the only thing I ever dreamed about as a child. There were never other dreams.”

For Legrottaglie, though, playing soccer is more than winning titles or receiving praise from passionate fans.

“For me, it’s another way of proclaiming Jesus’s name,” he says. “Everything I do, everything anyone does, who is a Christian, must be done to proclaim the name of Jesus, to give Him glory. Not for personal boasting, but for Him.”

Legrottaglie’s passion for the sport and for God was evident at age 13 when he made a promise to God, similar to the promise that Hannah made to God in I Samuel 1:11, when she vowed if God would give her a son that she would give him back to the Lord.

“When I was 13, I did make a promise to God, that if He gave me the opportunity to become a footballer, I would become a missionary for Him,” Legrottaglie says. “This is…the classic request that a small child, in his innocence, makes to God. And I did it, and God had mercy and grace on me in every step of my life, where He made this dream come true.”

“So today I find myself keeping that promise that I made to God, to become a missionary in the world where He sends me. I guess this could be thought of as my other dream; it started with wanting to be a footballer, and today my other dream is to take the name of Jesus all over the world, wherever He sends me.”

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Playing all over the world for top clubs has allowed him to understand and deal with the pressures of playing soccer at such a high level.

“In our life we have to accept everything that happens; there is life, there is death there is winning and losing. I think that the thing faith helps with most in the lives of people who have it is that it does not eliminate the problems, but helps to overcome them,” Legrottaglie says. “This is the real meaning of faith. So how do I deal with them? I deal with them with the peace and the calm that only faith, only Jesus can give me.”

“So today I am not blocked by what is happening, what goes on in my life. If I were influenced, I would be like the waves in the sea, or like it says in the Bible, the house built on sand which is washed away when the wind arrives. So who is the rock? The rock is faith in Jesus. Jesus holds you still, in the good times and in the bad. So I am able to deal with it, by the grace of God, in this way, which makes me really peaceful. Jesus gives me this peace, the peace no one else has ever given me.”

That peace comes from his relationship with Christ, which is cultivated and nourished through Legrottaglie’s love for the Scriptures.

“The Bible allows me to know God. The only instrument I have in this life … other than the people who can help me, but the only instrument that I can read, where I can match up lots of truths, that God has given me, is the Bible,” he says. “In that book, I can understand what God wants, who God is, what God is like, His character, His characteristics, and so I use this book as a mirror.”

“This book, written at the beginning, or nearly, of man’s existence, is still actual today. I don’t see any other books written 3,000 years ago which are still modern and true…So we simply have to deepen our knowledge of this book and surely we will see our life changing.”

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine.

 

Feature story — Unconditional Acceptance

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Usually, performance leads to love.

If you perform well in school, your teacher may tell you, “Nice job.” If you perform well in your career, your boss might give you a raise. If you perform well in athletics, your coach may give you more playing time.

The problem is that sometimes this performance-driven mindset influences our spiritual lives as well. We think there is something we must do to earn God’s love. We think there is something we must change before we approach God’s throne. It’s a common mindset and even an understandable way of thinking, because this is how much of the world works. And yet, when it comes to our communion with God, a performance-driven mindset has the potential of thrusting us into a monotonous cycle of constantly beating ourselves up and never being good enough.

If salvation is rooted in performance, then where is there any room for grace?

For German football striker Claudemir Jeronimo Barreto, most commonly known as Cacau, this mental and spiritual struggle with performance couldn’t have been more relevant in his life.

“I used to think I had to perform to earn God’s love,” Cacau says. “Now, I understand that the absolute opposite is the case, and He accepts me just as I am.”

Just as I am.

Four rather life-changing words, if you think about it.

“When I was 16, it seemed that my hopes of becoming a footballer might have been over when the Palmeiras Club in Brazil did not want me anymore,” Cacau says. “The disappointment caused me to think about bigger questions, and it was then that I realized God was everything I was looking for. I had always believed in God, but did not have a relationship with Him. I knew I needed His love and forgiveness and decided to live for Him.”

It was in the wake of rejection for his performance that Cacau’s heart, mind, and soul were opened to the spiritual realm—where God loved him exactly for who he was, not for how he should be. It was God’s revelation of whose he was that ultimately helped him change who he was.

“It was such a relief to understand that He loves and accepts me for who I am,” Cacau says. “I don’t have to prove myself because He has done everything for me and created me for a purpose. It is not what I do that matters, but what He does through me.”

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After being cut from Palmeiras, Cacau’s rise to the professional ranks was extremely unconventional. He left his homeland of Brazil and went to Germany. To make a living, Cacau worked on the support staff of a touring dance troupe. He eventually received his first playing contract from a fifth-tier German club in Munich.

The league took note of his skills, and he was called up to the first-tiered Bundesliga where he played for FC Nuremberg for two seasons. His career began to pick up steam. He was picked up by VfB Stuttgart, and he immediately became one of the squad’s primary goal scorers. He scored a career-high 13 goals in 2007, helping VfB take the Bundesliga title in one of the world’s most competitive leagues.

Though he was never called up to play for the Brazilian national team, he became eligible to play for the German national team in 2009. He scored six international goals between 2010 and 2012, including one goal in their 4-0 victory against Australia in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Throughout his entire ride, awakening to the reality that He is loved by God has helped provide consistency for his life in such a performance-driven, results-focused, pressure-filled sport like soccer.

“I struggled with it (combining faith with the demands of elite sport) at the start of my career, but it was always clear to me that I neither could nor wanted to separate my faith and elite sport from each other,” Cacau told FIFA.com in December. “As a professional footballer the priority is always to perform. It’s vital you succeed and help your team. An important part of that is an unconditional determination to win and also to get stuck into challenges. On the other hand faith is helpful to me in terms of coping with the pressure to perform every time. It gives me the certainty that I’m loved even when we lose or I play badly.”

The grace shown to him by a God who loved him just as he was, was what ultimately changed him and freed his mind. There was nothing he could do in the realm of soccer to make God love him more or make God love him less.

Just as I am.

“I have had so many positive experiences and played with great players,” he says. “Of course, disappointments are hard to accept because it feels good to be successful and win. But to have God as my foundation of strength and to know that He accepts me at all times is where I find peace.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum.

 

Feature story — Unmasking The World

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It’s been a wild year for Colombian soccer star Radamel Falcao.

Falcao, considered one of the top strikers in the world, was acquired by Monaco in May of 2013 in a transfer deal from Atletico Madrid worth $80 million. That’s right, $80 million. Then, things got more exciting. Three months after his contract, Falcao and his wife, Argentinean singer Lorelei Taron, had their first child, Dominique Garcia Taron.

New contract. New kid. Not a bad year for the 28-year-old Falcao who has become a symbol of the Columbian national team.

Falcao—known as “El Tigre” or the “Tiger”—has everything in the world’s eyes. Soccer enthusiasts gush over his footskills and ability to finish offensively. Admirers and marketers love his look—his friendly face and long, black recognizable hair. Teams appreciate his stellar off-the-field reputation; he’s a family man, devout Christian, and a leader for Champions for Christ.

Professionally. Financially. Personally. He seems to have it all.

On January 22, however, while playing for Monaco in the French Cup, Falcao’s knee buckled under a reckless challenge, resulting in surgery on his ACL three days later. In an instant, his national dreams for Columbia came crashing down. The World Cup only comes around every four years, and his injury couldn’t have come at a worse time on the national scale.

However, the thing that has kept him steady in the highs is also the thing breathing life into him in the lows.

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“I feel blessed to play upfront and score goals,” Falcao says. “It is the maximum expression of the game and a special moment for players and fans alike. But with the recognition and responsibility to score comes a lot of pressure. I lean on God through that pressure, knowing He is always there to help me. My faith in Him has helped me maintain my composure and stay firm in my convictions throughout my career—and throughout my life.”

Falcao first came onto the scene when he was 13 years old playing for Lanceros Boyaca in Columbia, and he has continued to awe those who have watched his play on the pitch ever since. His name exploded when he played for Atletico Madrid from 2011-2013, a period when he scored more than 100 goals. In 2012, The Guardian ranked Falcao as sixth in its list of the 100 best footballers in the world, and well-known manager Fabio Capello considers Falcao on the same level as international superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

But what makes Falcao especially unique is his worldview in light of his immense popularity and incomprehensible wealth, his ability to stay firm in his convictions despite seemingly having the world at his fingertips.

“Some say that having football, recognition, and money is all you need to be satisfied,” Falcao reflects. “But a lot of people feel empty and have a void in their heart despite their fame and possessions. I believe that only God can satisfy our spiritual need. Jesus Christ gave His life to satisfy that need. With Him, we can be assured that He will never leave us. I know this personally because I have repeatedly experienced His faithfulness and love in my own life.”

It’s one thing for someone who has not experienced anything this world values to say the world is pointless, but it’s another for someone who has reached the pinnacle of this world to say it’s empty at the top. It’s also one thing for someone without money to say wealth is empty; but it’s another for someone who has experienced wealth in its fullest to debunk its myths.

Falcao’s unique experience with this world, combined with his view of that experience, allows people to see the world for what it really is. As theologian Henri Nouwen once said in his book Life of the Beloved, “you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive.” It was St. Augustine who once said, “We were made for You, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Some have called it a “God-shaped hole” in our hearts that will forever exist no matter how impressive our résumés read or how many digits make up our savings accounts.

Falcao’s faith is what he clung to at the top and it’s what keeps him depending on God in lows, allowing him to unmask the world for what it is.

“King Solomon of the Old Testament made it his quest to learn the meaning of life,” Falcao says. “God blessed him with power, riches, wisdom, and success, and Solomon experienced each of these to their fullest. But even after enjoying a full earthly life, Solomon saw that it all meant nothing without a relationship with God. He said in Ecclesiastes 12:13, ‘When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity.’ Jesus Christ is my priority, and it is my desire that others would see His love and power at work in my life.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum.

 

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