The World Cup, one of the most watched sporting events, provides an opportunity to share the Gospel with countries closed to Christianity, according to one Brazilian ministry.
"We were praying for North Korea to qualify and when we found out they would be playing in the same city as Brazil we glorified God for the opportunity to announce to their fans the message of Jesus," said Pastor Marcos Grava Vasconcelos recently to The Guardian.
Vasconcelos, the leader of 200 Baptist missionaries who traveled to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, aims to reach out to citizens of North Korea, one of the most oppressive worldwide regimes. Tuesday's match between Brazil and North Korea will mark North Korea’s second appearance in the world cup since 1966.
North Korea has been named the world's top persecutor of Christians for eight straight years by watchdog Open Doors. The notoriously restrictive regime bans all religions other than a semi-personality cult centered around the current leader, Kim Jong-Il, and his father, Kim Il-Sung. It is illegal to be a Christian in North Korea and authorities have executed people found to possess a Bible.
An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Christians are currently in prison labor camps because of their faith.
Brazilian missionaries could be thwarted in their mission since it is unlikely any North Koreans, except select government officials, will be allowed to travel to South Africa to witness the games.
However, the 23 million North Koreans may have access to the televised games in their own country via free live feeds from an Asian broadcasting union.
“We want them to see what life is on the other side of the curtain,” John Barton, the sport director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, told the Associated Press.
Ultimately the feeds will only be seen if the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il decides to broadcast them.
Meanwhile, FIFA, the World Cup’s organizing body, has outlawed athletes from wearing clothing carrying political, religious or personal statements. FIFA’s move blocks Christian athletes from proclaiming the name of Jesus on air after scoring goals and winning games.
Christian athletes like Brazil midfielder Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite (commonly known as Kaká) who have been known to reveal religious-themed shirts from underneath their jerseys, such as the “I Belong to Jesus” t-shirt Kaká revealed after Brazil’s 2002 World Cup victory, would be penalized under the new rules.
Several soccer players also participated in a documentary titled "The Prize: Chasing the Dream," in which renowned players such as Tim Howard (USA), Oscar Ewolo (Congo), Nicola Legrottaglie (Italy), Marcos Senna (Spain) and Clarence Goodson (USA) proudly proclaim the Word of God. The DVD is being distributed during the World Cup by sports ministry Athletes in Action to reach fans from countries normally closed to Christianity.
Howard, the Christian U.S. goalkeeper, led the U.S. to a strong 1-1 draw against higher ranked rival, England, in the opening match for the U.S. on Saturday. The game marked the two teams’ first World Cup matchup in 60 years.
Broadcasters anticipate that up to 1 in 10 people around the globe will watch the World Cup final, making it one of the world’s most-watched television events.
The World Cup consists of 64 games between 32 teams from June 11 until July 11.