Two events bring together more people in one place and for one purpose than at any other time in human history: wars and World Cups. Yin and yang, devastation and delight in equal measure. It’s comforting that our capacity for carnage is easily surpassed by our capacity for celebration. We are reminded of this every four years, and with the upcoming World Cup in Brazil, my thoughts naturally turn to the impact of this beautiful game on the rest of the world. There are two stories in particular that should be told.
The first story finds the Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in 2005 in the midst of a bloody civil war. A law had been passed prior to the 2000 elections that would have made the children of immigrants ineligible to hold office. Cue mutiny, assassination and civil unrest that would last for years. Three years into the civil war, there were signs that peace may be achieved. They were tentative signs marred by mistrust and suspicion, but the hope was there. However the fighting continued, almost through habit rather than purpose.
And then something extraordinary happened. In October 2005, the Côte d’Ivoire national football team qualified for the World Cup for the first time in the country’s history. A country punished by infighting, fear and anguish finally, finally had a reason to cheer. And then something even more extraordinary happened. In the dressing room after the match that sealed their passage to the World Cup, Didier Drogba, the star striker for the team, grabbed a microphone and made an impassioned plea to his beloved country. Delirious with emotion, he dropped to his knees on live television and begged for the fighting to stop.
And it worked. The leaders of the rebels and the government met and agreed a ceasefire so that the divided country could support its football team as one. A round ball of stitched leather and string held the power to stop bullets and heal a wounded country.
The second story is of Ethan King, the son of an engineer. In 2009, he traveled to Mozambique with his father who was fixing wells in local villages. His father carried equipment that provided health and survival to the impoverished people, but it was Ethan that carried the object that would delight the children of the village. It was, of course, a football. A real football, not the misshapen lump of plastic garbage bags held together by string they were used to, but a genuine football. When Ethan revealed it, he was swarmed by 50 ecstatic children who had only dreamed of playing with the real thing. These children, for whom clean water was a luxury, found pure happiness in a simple football. These children, who weren’t exposed to television, couldn’t receive a proper education, and were far removed from modern day conveniences, found bliss in a football.
When his father’s work was finished and they prepared to leave the village, one of the children dutifully presented Ethan’s ball back to him. Touched, he let the children keep the ball, to which they reacted “as if they had won the lottery.” I couldn’t help but think of the response that theologian Dorothee Sölle gave to a reporter when asked how she would explain happiness to a child: “I wouldn’t explain it. I’d toss him a ball and let him play.” Water for survival, medicine for health and a round piece of leather for happiness. It was all so simple. Ethan began a charity called Charity Ball that is devoted to providing hand delivered footballs to impoverished children around the world. The organization is still very active and growing. Hand delivered happiness. Ethan was 9 years old when he started Charity Ball. Imagine that.
So what does this have to do with medicine? Nothing. Absolutely, gloriously, magnificently nothing. Medical school forces us to sacrifice so much to become doctors: our time and love for sport, history, literature, travel, writing, music and God knows what else. Learning medicine is an all-consuming endeavor, and even the most well-adjusted of us have to make monumental sacrifices to become doctors. So today, I wanted to be selfish. I’ve earned that right. I want to share my love of a beautiful game with someone else. From one medical student to another, this was nothing more than a minor distraction and a heartfelt plea: indulge in the things you love from time to time.