Christian Soccer Players Set to Light Up the World Cup

Long-time soccer fans can still remember the stirring moment when Brazil won the 2002 World Cup in Japan. The team knelt in thankful prayer, and on the winner's podium some of the players were wearing shirts with slogans such as "I belong to Jesus" and "Jesus loves you."

The 2014 World Cup – it is played every four years – kicks off in Sao Paulo on June 12, with 32 teams competing over one month. Brazil, the home team, are favorites to take the winner's trophy for a record sixth time.

If this is the case, expect more Christian witness. For the Brazilian team boasts a number of very devout Christians.

One of these is the team's vice-captain, David Luiz, who has been playing as a central defender for England's famous Chelsea team (though next season he will move to French champions Paris Saint-Germain).

He has told newspapers that he draws strength and inspiration from his faith. When he played in Portugal, before his move to Chelsea, he became famous for driving a van to training with stickers that proclaimed, "Christ is Life" and "God is Faith."

In a remarkable photo from 2011 in the British newspaper The Independent, Luiz is shown on the field laying hands on, and praying for, a fellow Chelsea player, Spanish striker Fernando Torres, before an important match. Chelsea went on to win that particular game 5-0, with Torres scoring twice.

The Brazilian captain Thiago Silva, regarded by some commentators as the best defender in the world, is another strong Christian. As a young, up-and-coming footballer he played for a short time in Moscow and there he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Coming near to death, he was also at one point told by doctors that he might lose one lung, and he was forced to miss an entire season of soccer.

He has no doubts about the nature of his subsequent miraculous recovery. "God saved me," he has declared.

England won the World Cup in 1966, and has struggled since. They are not among the top favorites for 2014. Yet some experts are quietly talking up their chances, thanks especially to two dynamic young stars, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling.

Both men play for the Liverpool club, and such was their prolific scoring during the 2013-14 season that their team came within just two points of upsetting eventual champions Manchester City.

In the English Premier League (the top division) few players are more openly expressive of their faith than Sturridge. He raises his hands skyward in thanks after each of his goals, and when he tweets he regularly uses the hashtags #godislove and #godisgood.

In September 2013, after he won the Barclays Player of the Month award, he tweeted, "I do all through Christ who strengthens me." His Instagram page and his Facebook page (which has 1.8 million likes) both contain biblical quotes and Christian messages.

He says he prays each morning and night, and his Bible is among his most prized possessions. He is also active in charity work, including in Jamaica, birthplace of his parents, where he has launched his own charitable foundation for disadvantaged youngsters.

His teammate Raheem Sterling was once such a youngster. Born in Jamaica, he came to England as a child with his mother, and was for some years a wild teenager, fathering a child and being arrested on assault charges (though found not guilty).

His faith has clearly been a calming influence on the hot-headed youth, who is still only 19, and it certainly helped him enjoy a stellar 2013-14 season, followed by selection to England's 23-man World Cup squad. His tweets now sometimes contain biblical passages. Nevertheless, he admits that he struggles.

"I'm not 100 percent religious," he told Britain's Daily Mail newspaper. "But my belief is strong. When the time is right, I will fully be Christian. My mum is a big help, a big influence in that. Faith is an important thing for me. Every match day I put faith in God. It's not part of a pre-match ritual or anything, but I pray at home the day and night before. I pray most days - I try to anyway. It is one of those things where I need to get into the routine."

Other strong Christians will be in action in Brazil. Mexican star Javier Hernandez, the son and grandson of famous soccer players, plays for popular English club Manchester United, and is renowned for kneeling on the pitch in prayer at the start of each game.

U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan has shared his testimony on the Beyond the Ultimate website, which features Christian sports stars. "I think we all need Christ in our lives," he writes. "Money, fame, all those objects, they don't mean anything if you don't have Jesus in your life. All of those things can be gone in the blink of an eye. We can't get caught up in it."

As another World Cup spectacular is about to kick off, these are timely words for all soccer fans and players.

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