Around the World Cup – Round of 8 –

We are down to the round of 8 at the World Cup. This event has really reminded me how much fun elite soccer is to watch. I have really enjoyed the tournament and look forward to the remaining games. It has been very fun to see the Russian team exceed expectations in front of their hometown fans. And if you missed it, check out this post I wrote about Alexandr Samedov, a Christian on the Russian National team.  Today, I present a collection of players who play today in Russia, one from each team. I hope you enjoy their stories and the action as it resumes again in the quarterfinals.

Uruguay

Edinson Cavani – Striker

Cavani scores his second goal of the game against Portugal, sending Uruguay to their game against France in the Quarterfinals.

Cavani is playing in his 3rd World Cup and 7th international tournament for Uruguay. He has played over 100 games for Uruguay’s national team and has scored more than 40 goals. He has had a great tournament so far, netting 3 goals in his team’s 4 games. When not plying his trade for his homeland, he plays professionally with Paris St-Germaine where he has scored 116 times in 165 games over 5 seasons. Altogether as a pro, he has scored 323 goals in 530 games over 13 seasons. He is definitely one that defenders will need to keep tabs on during today’s game. But for Cavani, he plays for a reason greater than his own acclaim. According to this article from Sports Spectrum, Cavani plays to honor Christ. He says “That’s why I play for Him, to give Him glory, to thank Him for giving me the ability to play football … for giving me that divine gift that I am trying to manage more and more. We belong to the Evangelical church…I read the Bible every day, study it, and share with my wife the blessings of faith.”  And with the success comes temptations of fame and fortune. According to the Guardian, Cavani says that faith is important in helping him battle these temptations. He says “Football puts everything at your fingertips… Faith really helped me realise that the temptations that you have on hand will give you joy, enjoyment, whatever, but only for a short while. And after that it is all gloom.” Will Cavani and La Celeste continue to march toward the final? To do so, they will have to defeat…

France

France’s Giroud’s tattoo of the 23rd Psalm in Latin. The devout Catholic says faith is important to him.

Olivier Giroud

Just 5 1/2 months older than Cavani is Olivier Giroud, striker for France. Giroud has played over 75 matches for France, scoring 38 goals. As a pro, he plays for Chelsea, after playing for a number of years with Arsenal. Overall, he has scored 201 goals in 482 games. Giroud is a devout Catholic who wears his faith on his sleeve in the form of a tattoo of the 23rd Psalm written in Latin. When asked about it, Giroud saysI grew up with Christian values and I have always felt security conforming to them. These serious words on my arm to reassure me, I know that if I need something, help, I can pray. I have prayed in the middle of a match. Sometimes, when things aren’t going as well as you would like, you ask the help of Jesus. That helps me concentrate again. To focus on what is important. Speaking to him allows me to clear my head. It only lasts a few seconds but it enables me to get rid of my frustration.” The winner of this game will move on to play against the winner of today’s second game between

Brazil

Alisson Becker – GK

Alisson Becker, GK for Brazil has 3 clean sheets in 4 games this World Cup. Will he help Brazil secure another World Cup title?

Brazil is not known for their goalkeepers. Their history lies mostly in their long list of scorers. Names like Pele, Ronaldo, Kaka and Neymar are known and feared by many throughout the history of the game. But Alisson Becker is making a name for himself with his play in the Italian League with Roma. At the World Cup, he has played all 4 games, allowing only 1 goal along the way to 3 clean sheets. The 25 year-old keeper, when he learned about his spot on the National Team, took to social media with the exciting news. He wrote “Very happy to receive the opportunity to defend my country in a world cup! Realization of a dream!!!! Now it is go in search of hexa !!!!! Glory to God!! AB1 God in control worldcup2018″. And in a Q&A session with fans, the Roma goalkeeper shared his thoughts about God’s place in his career. He says “I think faith is important too. If you believe in God, you know you have to do your best on the pitch and put love into everything you do in life.”  And if you really want to see how likable a guy Alisson is, check out this article he wrote for the Player’s Tribune about his brother. Very cool!

Will the Brazilian firepower, and Alisson’s skills in goal be enough to stop the potent offense from…

Belgium

Christian Banteke – striker

Belgian striker Christian Banteke celebrates goals by pointing to heaven in tribute to God. Will he be pointing heavenward as Belgium takes on Brazil?

27 year old Nigerian-born Belgian striker Christian Banteke is no stranger to scoring goals. He has bulged the twine 126 times in his 347 career professional games. And in international play, he has another 12 goals in 32 games. And when he does score, he celebrates with by pointing to the sky. As you can read in this article from Aston Vila FC, his point is a tribute to God and his faith. He says  “I do the celebration because I believe in God. So when I score the first thing I have to do is say thank-you to him. He has given me the power to score. I am a very religious person. I pray before the game and I pray after the game too…Before each match I pray to him to … look after everyone. Before we are footballers, we are men, we are people together.” This time around, he will be praying for his Belgian teammates and for his Brazilian opponents. I appreciate his sportsmanship, the other team is not the enemy, they are simply people like him, playing for the same goal.

Who will survive to play in the semi-finals? Enjoy the games everyone!

Hometown Tournament – 2018 World Cup – Alexandr Samedov – MF

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is half over. 32 teams has been reduced to 16 and it has been a very exciting process to reach this point. Of course my native Canada is not involved. This is not a huge surprise – they have only appeared in the World Cup one time in the 21 tournaments – 1986 in Mexico where in 3 games, they were outscored 5-0. A little more surprising this time around is that USA, my country-in-law, is also not present at the tournament, failing to qualify for the first time in the past 8 World Cups. So that, of course has left me looking for who to cheer on. The games have been quite entertaining to watch, but I haven’t landed on a team that I really am pulling for. So instead, I will simply share some stories over the next few days of players in the tournament that are outspoken about their faith in Jesus. I will start with this great story from the host nation and their 33 year old midfielder Alexandr Samedov.

Alexandr Samedov goes for a ball in the tournament opener against Saudi Arabia.

What makes his story really stand out to me, and I will dig into it in a little bit, is the fact that Russia has strong guidelines limiting evangelism in general, and at these games in specific. But the Russian church has found a way to use this tournament to share God’s love with others. As you can read in this Christianity Today article, many churches are hosting viewing parties, inviting the public to come in and watch the game in their church buildings. According to the article, the guidelines say “There won’t be scores of Christians flying in to partner in proselytization efforts, either. For several years, the government, with its ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, has shut down foreign missions groups, stopped issuing visas for missions workers, and threatened to deport visitors who violate the restrictions.” And so while the population is not able to share their faith with others outside of the registered church buildings, one of the Russian players is sharing his journey of faith with American magazines. Meet Alexandr Samedov.

Samedov’s story of faith is featured in a recent Sports Spectrum magazine

Growing up in Moscow, the son of an Azerbaijani Muslim father and a Russian Orthodox mother, Samedov didn’t really connect with either faith. He says “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.” However, when life brought hard things and challenges to him, Samedov didn’t have a natural place to turn. He says “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.

Up to that point, Samedov’s life was focused on soccer. He was not interested in academics or reading in general. But one of the ways that his life began to change was his interest in reading. In this Sports Spectrum article, He says “‘I didn’t read much at all. I hardly had any free time. 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…“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.”

Here are my takeaways from Samedov’s story

Samedov, at 33, is likely playing in his last World Cup, and is excited to have it in his native country.

1- Unashamed – I admit that I don’t know Russia’s laws about evangelism and proselytizing, but I do know, based on the article I read about the World Cup, that there are strict limits to what is permitted. Yet, Samedov shared his story openly with Sports Spectrum Magazine. He has seen a great life change since he chose a life of faith in Christ, and is interested in sharing these life changes with others. I am challenged by this. Most of my life has been lived in Canada and the USA where despite the changing culture, it is still relatively safe to share your faith story with others regardless of the setting. Sure there are some places where it is more frowned upon than others, but the risk of arrest or more serious consequence is pretty small. However, if this should change, or regardless of our circumstance, am I ready to share the importance Jesus plays in my life with others around me? Am I ready to follow 1 Peter 3.15 “Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life. Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope” We do have this hope to share – let’s not hold back.

2- He is the Solution – We are problem solvers by nature. We don’t like to rely on others or admit that we need help. However, the reality of our existence is that we ARE in great need and cannot solve this problem on our own. Samedov ran into some troubles in his life that led him on a search for answers. His future wife brought him to church where, when giving Jesus a chance, he found many of the answers he was searching for. And it changed his life. The fact that this happens is the reason for the hope that we were talking about above. Other people around us are looking for answers and we have the resource to the answers they are looking for living in us. Let’s be bold and helpful, sharing our stories and helping others meet the one that can really answer their questions, meet their needs and change their life.

Olympic Faith part 3 – Skis & Skates – David Wise USA Freestyle Skiing – Half Pipe & Nicole Helmsley USA Women’s Ice Hockey

Soohorang & Bandabi – 2018 PyeongChang Olympics Mascots

I just finished watching the movie “Eddie the Eagle”. I had watched it before, but it was fun to watch during the Olympics. (we watched Cool Runnings last week too) and being a young Canadian during the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, I remember the attention that the story drew from the media. Eddie the Eagle was a huge part of those games. And the movie showed the lengths that he took to fulfill his Olympic dream.

David Wise en route to Olympic gold in 2014

It takes a lifetime of effort to qualify for the Olympics. If you should happen to medal it must be the icing on the cake. To qualify again four years later and get a chance to defend your title is another amazing accomplishment in itself. That is where Freestyle Skier David Wise finds himself  – Back in the Olympics, attempting to remain the only man on the planet to win Olympic Gold in this event. 

Wise with his Sochi 2014 medal is hoping to add a 2018 one to his collection.

Sochi was the Olympic Debut for Freestyle Skiers in the Halfpipe. Wise won Gold. It was a culmination of years of hard work and a dream come true for Wise. But his return to the Olympics has been an arduous journey as well. As you can read in this article from Religion News, some had written him off due to injury and other issues. On his blog, he writes “I am coming off the worst two seasons of my competitive career… A lot of things played into my lack of success in the past couple years: I had an injured shoulder and back, three separate concussions, my wife lost her father, my sister Christy was in a boating accident and lost her leg, I had a dear student of mine commit suicide. Not to mention my wife and I had our second child, Malachi, shortly after the Olympics in Sochi…. After Alexandra gave birth to Malachi, she went through a hard year of postpartum depression – something more common than most people realize… ” He continues to discuss that some turned their back on him (including sponsors) but that has only fueled his fire to give it his all in PyeongChang. CBN recently wrote an article about Wise.

Wise, with his wife Alexandra and their 2 kids. Faith in God has carried them many hard things

You won’t see the 27-year-old freestyle skier of the Halfpipe talking about God in interviews … What you will see is Wise talking about serving others and his family. Wise told SportsSprectrum.com  he would rather consistently live out his faith before talking a lot about it. “I don’t tell my Christian friends I’m a pro-skier. I don’t tell my skier friends I’m a Christian,” Wise said. “But you’re going to find out if you spend enough time with me either way.

 

Wise is ready to go on February 20 in the Half Pipe.

Also, check out this story from The War Cry. He says “(faith) has to be personal or else it’s not real,” Wise said. “That’s the most important part. If Christianity were just another world religion it would just be another example of people trying to earn God’s favor. The reality is Christ chose us because he wants that relationship with us. Discovering that on my own is when I really, truly felt it was my faith …We either choose to seek or we choose to drown it out with other things. I love in Jeremiah where it says if you seek me with all your heart you will find me,” Wise said. “That’s my experience. I went through life and I got to the point where I realized I just believed what I was told for a long time. Now I need to discover what it is I truly believe. What’s really true.”

My main Takeaway:

1- It’ll show – There is a lot of truth in what Wise said about his faith and his work. He doesn’t tell skiers he is a Christian, he doesn’t tell Christian friends he is a skier – spend enough time with him, who he is shows up. That is a great challenge for us. If you are a Christian, does Christ “show up” in your daily life so much  that even without declaring your faith, others know that it is part of who you are? I know that this thought challenges me to be more intentional with how I live. I want my actions to support the faith I have in God and the life He calls me to live.

Team USA goalie Nicole Hemsley

Goaltender Nicole Hensley is in her first Winter Olympics. She is a goaltender for the Women’s hockey team that has aspirations of gold after 4 straight Olympic Silver Medals. In her first game of the Olympic tournament, Hensley turned aside all 13 shots that she faced as USA defeated the Olympic Athletes from Russia team 5-0. For Hensley, her faith in God is very important to her. She knows that she has a platform to tell others about Him and does so frequently sharing bible verses on Twitter and even featuring some favorite verses on her goalie masks. She says
He’s also given me a bit of a platform to possibly reach others who are wondering about their faith, or maybe don’t have any faith, or want to grow stronger in their faith. Maybe it’s a way to start a conversation with somebody” . 

Hensley has been known to feature Bible Verses on her goalie mask.

Now, despite how easy it all looks from the comfort of my own couch, I understand that all Olympic journeys have more bumps than a moguls run. There are hardships at every turn and challenges that must be overcome. When these hard things come, we are often tempted to give up or turn away. But as Hensley shares in this CBN article, “Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, obviously He had a plan in every single place that He put me. It is easy to say that now, but really it’s just taught me that through the hardships you have to trust in your faith. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable to either grow in your faith or grow as a person or player as well

Hensley backstopped team USA to a 5-0 shutout against the Olympic Athletes from Russia in the opening round of the Olympic tournament.

My takeaway:

I’ve talked about it before, but it bears repeating because it is a lesson, sadly, that we need to learn over and over again. God is not calling us to a life of comfort. Far from it. When we are truly following God and living for Him, there will be many hard time that make things plenty uncomfortable for us. But in those times, and as Hensley mentions after those times come to an end, or at least give us a brief moment of rest, we see that God had purpose for the pain. It was a process of helping us lean on Him alone and put complete faith in his plan. May we always be ready to step out of our comfort zone if it leads us to a deeper faith in Him.

 

Olympic Faith Part 2 – Valentine’s Day Special – The Taylors and the Knierims

The Olympics Flame in PyeongChang

Today is Valentine’s Day and so with the Olympics in full force. So to bring together Olympic Sports and Love together, I’ve decided to use this space to share the stories of 2 Olympic couples and the stories that brought them together, and brought them to PyeongChang for the Olympics. You will also see how woven into their stories, the amazing parts and the hard parts, is their faith in God and the role He plays in their lives.

First to the ice:

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Kneirim with their Bronze medals won in the Team event last week.

Chris Knierim and his wife Alexa Scimeca Knierim already have a bronze medal to take home with them, in the Figure Skate Team competition. Now, they focus their attention on the couples competition. For a couple that was just thrilled to make the Olympic team, the medal is icing on the cake. It has been a long journey, at times harrowing journey to get to PyeongChang, and so the games have been therapeutic. Alexa says This competition’s very meaningful for us. We’ve kind of been lacking the joy and lightheartedness of life for about two years now, from all the struggles we’ve been through, so being here together, Chris and I are kind of just enjoying it.”

In the past 4 years, there have been broken bones, life saving surgeries and deaths in the family. They lean on each other and their faith in God for strength to get through these trials

What kind of struggles have they faced? Their dreams for the 2014 Sochi Olympics were haltedafter Chris broke his leg. They set their sights on 2018 in Korea. But in April of 2016, It was discovered that Alexa  had a rare disorder that had her throwing up often, losing weight and energy and having difficulty eating, drinking and sleeping.  Three surgeries to correct the issue and and nine months later,  The questions of whether they would skate competitively again were answered when they competed in the 2017 Four Continents Championship. Then, last April, in the midst of their push towards making the Olympics, Chris’ father passed away.  “I was crushed. Devastated. Broken,” Chris wrote on a social media post. “But again, I was brave on the outside. After all, we were heading into the Olympic season and there was no time to cry. I worked through the days I was empty inside and skated for the pride of my father.

Chris and Alexa have one more skate in their 2018 Olympic experience. Just being at the Olympics is a victory for them.

Standing on the podium, looking up at the flag, Chris allowed his mind to wander back to his father – who served in the military. “But for a moment Monday, he allowed his mind to drift, allowed the memories to flood back, allowed his emotions to win, watching the symbol of everything his father represented climb into an inky sky. “I know,” Chris said, “he’s proud of me.”

Alexa also shares that their faith in God has grown. (Faith) is the reason I was able to get back on the ice, because I stopped worrying and stopped trying to control life, because I couldn’t. In the moment, you know, I was so sick and didn’t really know where things were going to go for me, whether it was skating or life in general. So I finally just threw my hands up and said like, ‘You lead the way,’ and it’s my testimony and I stay true to it. And even here at the Games, it’s no longer about me. I have fans out there who know that I am a true believer in the Lord and I’m trying my best to shine his light and let people know that it’s okay to promote him and do things for him.”

They have one more skate to go tonight. It is worth cheering them on for persisting through hard times and leaning on God for strength. I am challenged by her words. We try to keep control and learn often that we really don’t have any control over what comes our way in this life. Let’s follow this example to give up our idea of control and find our strength in God.

Elena Myers (front) is competing in her 3rd Winter Olympics.

Nic Taylor and Elena Meyers-Taylor are bobsledders. Nic is an alternate on the Men’s team and will step in in case of injury. Elena is competing in her 3rd Olympics. She is a 2 time medal winner – bronze in Vancouver in 2010 and Silver in Sochi 4 years ago. If the trend continues, she will find herself at the top of the podium this time around. You can read this article from CBN that shares the story of how they came to be husband and wife and how they work together to better each other.

In a recent interviewed by Belief.net, Elena shared about how her relationship with God plays into her athletic career and her personal relationships. She answers “The Lord calls us to love everybody. Every day it’s a challenge. Within this sport, I’m called to love everybody. That means that every single German or Canadian that I want to beat, I still have to love. That means competing the way God wants me to compete. That means doing things that might not necessarily be seen as giving me a competitive advantage but instead doing what God would want me to do. As Christians, we’re asked to give.

Myers and Lauryn Williams – silver medalists in Sochi 2014

In my sport, if someone needs equipment or help with something, regardless of who they are as a competitor, I’m called to help them for a higher purpose. So it definitely affects everything I do…  I know that God is working through me within this sport. I know He’s put me here for a purpose and it’s not just to win medals. Winning is great and hopefully it gives me a platform to spread His love and spread His Word, but at the end of the day, I’m called to do what He wants me to do.

Nic Taylor at the Olympics on the US Men’s bobsled team and Elena Meyers-Taylor were married in April 2014.

Again, I find her words challenging. We tend to be so self-serving. We do whatever it takes to look out for ourselves and often it comes at the expense of others. Elena’s words challenge me again to think of others first, to set aside temptations to look after my own needs regardless of what it may mean to others. I pray that God will give me eyes to see the needs of those around me and how He can use me to help. I pray that I will willingly do whatever He asks me to do and spread his love and word in the world around me.

Olympic Faith Part 1 -History Makers- Maame Biney, Seun Adigun and Simidele Adeagbo

 

The Olympics are now on day 4 of competition and it has been a lot of fun to watch. I think the Olympics are my favorite overall Sporting event. I was born just a few days before the start of the Montreal Olympics, and I remember fondly watching almost every Olympics since then. I enjoy the stories of the athletes, most lesser known than the “professionals” that absorb most of the sports landscape in North America. Many have incredible journeys and vast measures of sticktoitiveness to make it to the Olympics. Today, I want to share 3 of those stories.

Maame Biney – USA Short Track Speed Skater

Maame Biney

It doesn’t take long to become a fan of Maame Biney. Maybe it is her father, Kweku, holding a sign saying “Kick some Hiney Biney!” at Olympic Trials. Maybe it is the huge smile that is seen almost all the time flashing across her face – except at race time.  Maybe it is the dance of excitement she breaks into when she is successful in a race. Maybe it is a bit of all this wrapped together with an amazing story of moving from Ghana to Virginia, being separated by all those miles from her mother and younger brother. You can check out the story in this CNN article. It shares how 3 months after arriving in America, her dad pointed out a “learn to skate” sign for figure skating lessons. That didn’t take, but her coach suggested that her speed and energy would work well in speed skating. And there, at age 5, began the journey that has sent her now to PyeongChang, South Korea.

Upon qualifying for the Olympics, Biney shared the importance God plays in her life. She wrote “I want to start off by thanking God.  I am so sure that none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for Him. If God hadn’t given my dad the strength to wake up, and take me to practice, I wouldn’t be here today. I also want to thank God for giving me the passion to do this.” It is this last line that catches my attention. God has given us all passion to do different things. What is your passion? How can  God use you for His purposes?

The almost constant smile of Maame Biney

The other part of her story that I kept coming back to was something her father said to her after she felt she had a bad result at a skating event. He said “No matter what happens tomorrow, whether you get last or whether you get first, just know that I love you not because you’re a speed skater but because you’re Maame and you’re my daughter,” I love that because it is similar to how God views us. No matter what happens tomorrow, He loves us – not because of what we accomplish, but because we are His creation. What a great place to rest in – His perfect, unending love.

Seun Adigun – Nigeria Bobsled team captain

Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga are making history as the Nigerian Bobsled team

Seun represented Nigeria in the 2012 Olympics in the 100m hurdles. She had sustained a leg injury and was not at 100% for those 2012 games. As you can read in this article from TMC she was not content with the results failing to qualify from her opening heat, so she tried out for Team USA bobsled in hoping to redeem her Olympic experience.  She is a duel citizen of USA and Nigeria and her bobsled training experience, partnered with the fact that 2 of her friends in Houston were also track and field athletes and also duel citizens from Nigeria, to put together the first ever bobsled team from an African country.

The Nigerian Bobsled team is the first African entry in the Olympic Bobsled competition.

She built a makeshift bobsled out of wood, to “simulate the bobsled in Lake Placid, where I trained with the U.S. team“. And while she is still adjusting to the Winter weather – she talks about numb hands and frostbite – she has accomplished her goal of putting together the first Bobsled team from an African Nation. Oh, and she also completed her doctorate. When asked how she balanced her schedule and accomplished all this, she says “When you ride on faith, you’re able to live in that element of selflessness. You’re able to live in that moment of fearlessness. I don’t attribute any type of individual success to myself, but more so to God’s will to put me in places to allow things to flourish or opportunities to present themselves,

What opportunities are presenting themselves in your life? How can God help you flourish in those opportunities?

 

Simidele Adeagbo – Nigerian Skelton

Nigerian Skelton competitor Simidele Adeagbo.

If Seun and the other bobsledders were hoping to inspire other with their historical efforts, they don’t have to look very far to see that they have. Meet Simidele Adeagbo.  When she heard about the Nigerian Bobsled team, she was inspired to chase her own Olympic dream as well. She had been pursuing her hopes to make the Olympics her whole life, as a Track and Field athlete. She had not been successful, and finally saw her opportunity present itself in an unexpected way – in the Winter Olympics.  You can read about it in this interview from Punchng.com.  She learned about the bobsled team and it inspired her to take up a new sport – Skelton. She has only been active in the sport since last September.

Adeagbo only picked up the sport of Skelton last September. To qualify for PyeongChang is an amazing accomplishment.

The interviewer from Punch asked “who is Simidele Adeagbo? Her answer? “Simidele Adeagbo is a creative force, she is very determined, a pioneer, a business woman, an extraordinary athlete and a Nigerian. She is a sister, a friend, a Christian and she loves God and through this journey, God has even shown her how faith is most important because faith made this possible.

Faith is most important. It can lead us down roads we never would have dreamed of. Where is God asking you to trust Him and step out in an exercise of faith? Are you ready for the adventure that awaits?