There once was a war between two countries.
It doesn’t matter which countries they were.
A war is a war is a war with few differences
And in time, the details fade away to a blur.
As the story goes, these two warring nations
Had to meet on another kind of battleground,
But not to kill – to play a game called Soccer
For the World Cup had again rolled around.
Both teams’ players were very young and naïve.
Most didn’t even know what the war was about.
All they wanted to do was perfect their skills.
Their only desire was to play the game all-out.
Maybe it was their simplicity and innocence
That caused the events on that amazing day.
They were athletes, not politicians or soldiers
And like all athletes, they just wanted to play.
But that’s not how the rest of the world saw it.
To them, the players represented much more.
A victory for them was victory for their country
And symbolized which side would win the war.
The day of the battle drew nearer and nearer.
The hostilities mounted and the hatred grew.
Some people even sent threats to the players –
“Don’t you lose that game, whatever you do.”
Emotions were high on the day of the match.
Not one seat was left unfilled in the stands
Both sides were dressed in their team colors
And flags waved proudly in everyone’s hands.
There were terrible fights in the parking lot.
The riot control brigade was out in full force.
The hooligans threw rocks, bottles and darts.
Fanaticism had robbed them of any remorse.
The players took the field amid the madness.
The stadium exploded with boos and cheers.
The patriots on both sides felt well justified
In attacking the boys with insults and jeers.
A bottle struck one of the players in the face
Before the game had even gotten underway.
The crowd erupted and more cops came in
With paddy wagons to take the unruly away.
The presence of so many men and weapons
Was enough to quell any further aggression
And the hooligans begrudgingly acquiesced,
Settling for less violent forms of expression.
Each of the players then took their positions,
Assessing each other with determined stares.
The weight of a country on each of their backs
As they whispered fervent, last minute prayers.
They prayed for a swift victory over their enemies.
They prayed they would make their country proud.
The whistle sounded and the charge was declared.
A deafening clamor spewed forth from the crowd.
The game was as reckless and angry as the war.
The pressure to please their fans was immense.
Disgrace and dishonor was certain for the losers
So each was determined to win at any expense.
A leg was broken within the first fifteen minutes.
One player lost a tooth but went ahead, anyway.
The refs were running out of yellow and red cards.
The game had become a ruthless, back alley fray.
The fans were hard enough to control when sober
But by halftime, the alcohol started to take effect.
The police became overwhelmed and outnumbered
And allowed fights in the stands to rage unchecked.
To make matters worse, a bitter rain started falling.
Bloodied and battered, the players grimly fought on.
It resembled a clash between two Medieval armies.
The attrition continued. Three more men were gone.
The score was tied two to two in the final minute.
The crowd was rabid, blinded by hatred and fear.
The players, exhausted, struggled to keep going.
This was a military skirmish, and no less severe.
The score was still even when the clock ran out.
Extra time was called and the whistle rang again.
Their bodies battered, it became a battle of wills.
Each side scored; it was three to three at the end.
The coaches selected their boys for a shoot-out.
It was easy – only a few were still able to stand.
With steely resolve, the star player took his shot.
The ball slipped narrowly past the goalie’s hand.
Right up to the end, the drama never diminished.
It was the most glorious soccer game of all time.
But how it ended is what this story is really about
And it’s what takes this tale from good to sublime.
Through all the madness of unbridled competition
Fueled by millions of chanting countrymen’s pride,
The players realized, even in the midst of the war,
That they were no different at all on the inside.
Their skin color, language and flags were different.
They each heard the chants and screams for blood.
But soldiers share a bond that civilians can’t know
Who are far from the fight in the dirt and the mud.
The victorious team was jumping with joy and relief
But the star player who had scored the winning goal
Couldn’t seem to celebrate along with his teammates.
Something disturbing and profound stirred in his soul.
He had started the game with only winning in mind
And he’d heard terrible things about the other team.
Everyone had told him, “Those people aren’t like us.
They’re pure evil, no matter how normal they seem.”
But he had seen no evil as he played alongside them.
He just saw other young men trying to win, like him.
He looked up at the stadium, full of his cheering fans
But it didn’t seem glorious. It seemed bitter and grim.
He looked over at the goalie who had missed the save.
He was kneeling on one knee, his face hidden in shame.
He walked away from the crowd across the field to him.
He looked back and the rest of his team did the same.
He touched the man’s shoulder and helped him stand up,
Then he whispered something to him nobody could hear.
The goalie smiled slightly, shook his hand and nodded,
Then walked away to his team who were gathering near.
The star player led his teammates to the center of the field.
The other team kneeled with them and they all joined hands.
The crowd fell silent, confused about what they were seeing.
Then he asked, “Please pray for peace between our lands.”
Many screamed in anger and stormed out of the arena;
Others stood watching, unsure of what they should do;
A few brave souls bowed their heads and started to pray;
But it was a different stadium when they all were through.
The star player stood up when the silent prayer was over
And said, “There’s an old saying – ‘Let peace begin with me.’
Well, I invite you all to come down and meet your enemy.
Let peace begin here and maybe the politicians will see.”
And one by one, the fans, who were so full of hatred before,
Started winding their way through the stands to the grass
And people who were supposed to have nothing in common
Were able to forgive and forget the old, stubborn impasse.
The story made headlines around the world the next day
But the war continued on until it finally burned itself out.
Nobody knows if that prayer made any actual difference.
Hatred often burns higher than the faith of the devout.
But the people who prayed that day were changed forever
For they learned the greatest lesson that any one of us can –
That despite all the commotion on the tossed, angry surface,
We’re all one human family; we’re all a brotherhood of man.