Religion | Football’s place in yuletide ritual

Reports from distant cultures, in Guatemala and Burma, confirm how football insinuates itself into the most hallowed seasonal festivities.

A recent article in the Contra Costa Times concerning the displacements that linger from Guatemala’s 30-year civil war (1962–92) touches on the centrality of football even in rural Mayan communities (Matt O’Brien, “Pushed Out by a Civil War, One Family Strives to Reunite,” Dec 25). Pedro Lorenzo Calmo, 14, for an English class in Oakland, California, draws his house in Todos Santos in the Cuchumatanes mountain range as the customary white box with stick figures beside. Also beside “my house in the Guatemala,” the drawing indicates, sits the football field.


Earlier correspondence with Rev. Ellen Harris Dozier, a Presbyterian missionary in San Felipe, echoes the newspaper report of young Calmo’s sketch. Dozier writes how the pitch becomes a central element in village maps created by the mostly illiterate women whom she teaches. At Seminario Evangélico Presbiteriano on Christmas Day in 2000, the seminary is overrun by footballers:

The couple of days before Christmas at the seminary were very quiet. The personnel and staff were on vacation. Only a handful of workers were around to keep the grounds clean and attend to the few people who came to use the swimming pool or play a quick game of soccer. But on the morning of Christmas Day all that changed dramatically. I watched as pickup trucks full of people (the buses were not running on the 25th) pulled into the seminary and people piled out. Then families began to arrive, again by the truckload. I had been told that there would be a soccer game, but it looked like much more than one soccer game! As it turned out, there was a soccer tournament on Christmas Day, beginning at 8 a.m. and concluding at 5:30 p.m., with the seminary team winning the trophy. I spent most of the day watching the games, enjoying the warm sun and the visits with neighbors and friends. I am still trying to understand what it means to play a soccer tournament on Christmas Day. Perhaps you have to be Guatemalan to really understand.

Displaced members of the Karen ethnic group from Burma, attempting to re-create homeland custom in the Chapel Hill–Carrboro area in central North Carolina, recall the prominence of sporting competition, including football, within village life (Cheryl Johnston Sadgrove, “Local Burmese Re-create Homeland Holiday,” Raleigh News & Observer, Dec 25).

Pascal Khoo Thwe, From the Land of Green Ghosts

Pascal Khoo Thwe, in From the Land of
Green Ghosts
(Harper Perennial,
2003), writes that the “Padaung
have a talent for football, and they
play it with all their hearts.”

Among the Padaung in Shan State, similar ritual exists around football matches, writes Pascal Khoo Thwe in his memoir From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey. Players’ relatives traveled great distances to support the hometown Phekhon Township football team in regional tournaments, where players sometimes had to sleep “under the stands along with the cockroaches, ants and rats.” If triumphant, the town would welcome the team with a brass band playing “See, the Conquering Hero Comes” from Georg Frideric Handel‘s Judas Maccabaeus. But, as a matter of more mundane existence, football helped mark the Padaung’s festival calendar:

Football games were also great social events, and were accompanied by an enormous amount of drinking, and by dancing. The winning teams were rewarded with a dozen barrels of soap, and a barrel of rice-wine for the celebrations. The town council once made the mistake of handing out only boxes of matches as the prize. In their rage the players burnt the goalposts and nets. (70)

Of his time in seminary, Pascal Khoo Thwe says his father superior encouraged proficiency in football, especially when playing Baptists. “Father Paul wanted us to be priests who were good at football, because that would convince people that God was on our side” (102).


Super Bowl Sunday also creates an opportunity for alternative rituals. The Guatemalan community in Jupiter, Florida, on 3 Feb 08 celebrated the Baile del Venado (Dance of the Deer) to correspond with a festival honoring the Virgin of Candelaria in Jacaltenango, Guatemala. A football game, naturally, complemented the dance (Chrystian Tejedor, “Annual Maya Fiesta in Jupiter Celebrates Guatemalan Heritage,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 4 Feb 08).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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