Soccer has long been a passion of mine, and I dare say at times it has been an idol. I love it. One of my favorite things to do in the world is to play soccer, slightly lower on that list is watching it.
Landon Donovan, without a doubt, is my all time favorite player. I have watched every soccer game I could since I was around 9 years old. I remember watching the 1994 World Cup with fascination. I remember watching the United States national team advance via an own goal by Colombia. Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones were my favorite players. Alexi Lalas' red hair and tall stature reminded me of my dad. He was fierce in the air and fearless. Cobi Jones was relentless, speedy, and crafty. I remember watching Brazil completely dominate the United States in the next round. I remember Leonardo's thunderous elbow crashing into Tab Ramos jaw, one of the most horrific red cards I have ever seen. A red card that simultaneously crushed any American hope (Tab Ramos was one of our best players) and made it (we now had a man up!). The Americans that day were brave. Brazil peppered our goal and could have won 5 to 0, but the Americans had heart. They lost 1-0 a respectable result to a much better team, and in my opinion, the best international team I have ever seen.
By the time 2002 came around, our team was legitimately good. The year prior to the World Cup, two young players emerged as the future of US soccer, players who threatened to be world class: Mr. DeMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan. I woke up at 2, 3 in the morning to watch every US game live, and the young guns were my new favorites. We played well, and Donovan became the young darling of the tournament. We advanced. Portugal and South Korea were supposed to go through. Maybe Poland. Not us. Definitely not us. Then we dominated Mexico, and suddenly, the United States was one of 8 teams still standing. When we played Germany, I expected us to bunker and be destroyed. Everyone did. The Germans were one of the favorites backed by perhaps the greatest goalkeeper of all time, Oliver Kahn. But Donovan was fearless, he made the much more heralded Germans look silly running past them with and without the ball. He looked like a world beater, and he was. We lost 1-0. If the game had been called correctly, it would have at least gone to overtime. Torsten Fring's hand knocked a sure goal off the line. Red card. Penalty. But we got neither. Nonetheless, this 1-0 defeat was nothing like the one in 1994 to Brazil. We outplayed Germany. We played like we belonged. We still played tenacious defense, the typical American brave style...but this time we deserved a result, and if justice had been served, we might have been semifinalists...playing South Korea, a game in which we might have even been the favorite.
Donovan went on to become the greatest American player of all time. He is the all time leader in goals and assists, but those are only numbers. Donovan had world class vision. He made passes that were too good for his teammates...he made passes like Xavi and Iniesta, and many times his teammates failed to make the run necessary to maximize his brilliance. They could not see the field like Donovan. No American has. Donovan was not a European player. He was all American. He played with the heart of 1994 with world class skill, and no American has come close to him (and perhaps, none ever will).
Donovan is set to retire after tomorrow's MLS championship. I’m heartbroken. He is not much older than me, and to be honest, I love him. I love watching him. And I have come to respect him tremendously, and not just for what he has done on the field. He is honest and open about his imperfection. He has battled with depression. He has fought being a super star. He chose his family over his career. When his wife left him, he nearly begged publicly for her to come back to him. He went on a controversial sabbatical for his own mental health, a decision that the current US coach used against him when he left Donovan off the World Cup roster. I have little faith that Donovan and I have the same world view. When he was younger, he was Catholic. Now, I have no clue what he believes. Nonetheless, I respect that he has become a spokesperson for mental health. There is so much stigma around depression, especially in the egotistical world of sports. How could a top athlete struggle with mental health? Donovan’s point is simple: easily. And in fact, the struggle is probably more the norm than the outlier. Athletes like Donovan are taught to bury their feelings and to focus on what is important: winning. But such a formula never wins. Sports are not ultimate. They weren’t ultimate to Donovan. They aren’t ultimate to me, and anyone who makes them ultimate has wasted their life. Even if they are as good as Lionel Messi or Michael Jordan.
I am not ready for Donovan to retire. I love seeing him play. I love listening to his interviews. He is my boyhood soccer hero, a player I have watched grow from a young prospect to the best American player of all time and advocate for those struggling with depression.
Now, I'm writing about soccer. And Landon Donovan and I both agree, soccer is not ultimate. It is a game. I love games, but games are games, and in the end of all things, they will be forgotten. I was raised to believe that every time I play a game, I win, because you win in the playing, not in the result. I believe this. Games are fun, and the winning is in the participation. But they are not important, and in fact, I’d go as far as to say that thus far, this article has been a waste of your time. I wrote it not because it is profound or important, but because it has been on my mind.
As I have been thinking of Donovan, a player that I have followed so closely that I feel a certain amount of kinship toward (although I have no such right), it reminded me of what it must have been like for the apostles to follow Jesus. He was their mentor, Rabbi, Lord, and friend. He was sincere and human, yet perfect and sinless. He was ultimately righteous, loving, kind, gentle, and powerful. Then, one day, He was killed in brutal fashion.
Now, I have never had a friend I can compare to Jesus, but imagining any friend of mind being crucified brings tears to my eyes. How much worse must it have been to see God in flesh crucified? His friends watched as he was arrested. One picked up a sword and cut off one of the captor's ears. Christ's response was perfect. He healed his captor. He healed the man taking him away to die. I am that captor. I am the one with the sword fighting His salvation. Yet he healed me.
His friends then fled. Some went to watch what was to take place: the Crucifixion. One of them denied Him. Another held Jesus' mother as they wept together.
There is no one on earth I love as much as Jesus. And I never shook His hand. I've never heard His voice. I never felt his tangible embrace. But they did. And He was gone. The best thing that had ever happened to Him...the Lord of Lords...the Messiah...was dead! This was not supposed to be how things played out. Except...it was.
So then at the end of the book of John, they went back fishing. Now remember, several of them were called while fishing. Jesus came to them while they were working. Christ told them to cast their net in shallow water off the shore...and well, fish don't live there. So they did, and they had more fish than they had ever seen in one net. Christ commanded them, "Be fishers of men" and they left everything to follow Him. Then Christ died. “So much for fishing for men,” they must have thought. “The mission is over, back to work we go.” Of course, He did not stay dead. He came to them, although they did not recognize Him, and He told them to do it again. Another miraculous catch. And they realized that the Lord had returned. I cannot fathom how exciting it must have been to have God Himself in your presence, nor can I imagine the joy of having a dead friend return, but I do no this: I know no greater joy than Jesus Christ. And this: He is coming back.
I hope that Landon Donovan changes his mind. I hope that in a month, two, or even a year, he starts playing again. And I hope that somehow he plays in another World Cup.
And even more, I await the return of the Lord, whose return has been delayed because "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance," 2 Peter 3:9.
But the Lord also left us with a challenge in verse 12, "as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming." The challenge is two fold: 1.) Look forward to the Lord's return, and 2.) To speed its coming.
Well, how are we supposed to do that? The Gospel of Matthew provides the answer in Matthew 24:14: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come."
And again in Matthew 28:18-20: "Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Some might ask, well, why does God care if people believe in Him?
The answer is simple. God loves us. God loves you. And He knows that the best thing for us, the best thing for our mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional health, is that we might find joy in the Lord. He is the best medicine. He is the key to eternal life, and His love is better than life.
Psalm 67 expresses God's eternal purpose. "May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth."
God wants the nations to praise Him because He knows that in so doing they will sing for joy! Their tears will turn to smiles, and they will be His forever! God desires our joy, and He knows that our joy will only be complete in Him.
All scripture speaks of this, and in fact, God's covenant with Abraham referenced Christ's command to go to all nations, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.” Genesis 26:14
So, we are to work to help the nations sing, to make them glad, to bring them joy! Joy is the Lord’s! We are called to bring the Good News to the world to facilitate the glorification of the name of the Lord! We are to eagerly await the Lord’s return, and we are to work tirelessly to hasten His return. The Great Commissions commands us: Go. Where? To those who do not sing praises the Lord.
Who are they? Check out Joshuaproject.net to find out.
Landon Donovan- I am sorry that I am infatuated with you. I’m sorry that I’m one of those who has put pressure on you for years that has no doubt negatively affected your mental health. And I thank you for what you have done for mental health. I thank God that He has used your retirement to redirect me toward Himself and what is important: Jesus Christ, the Only One worthy of praise and glory.
Dear God, help me to not make idols of men, sports, or anything else. Forgive me for my sin, for I am the worst sinner I know. And thank you Lord, for the joy that you bring me. Your love is better than life, so I praise you. Equip me Lord to bring the Good News to those who have not heard your name so that they might joyfully sing praises to Your Name, for only your name deserves praise. God, you are a good God, you are the only God. Even the suffering I endure, you use for your glory. Lord, help me to suffer more if it will bring you more glory. Help me to suffer more if it will purify me. Lord, I know I will suffer more than I can bear, and I know that you are strong enough to carry my burdens including unlimited suffering, even the cross. Lord, be with Landon Donovan as he ends his career, be with His mental health. I pray that He knows you Lord and loves you, and that You are his peace. Thank you Lord. Come soon Lord Jesus. Amen.