This is a short tale about two football teams.
The first are a group of grown men who carried the hopes of a watching nation. The second are a group of young boys who carried the hopes of a watching world.
In Russia, the England men’s football team made it to a World Cup Semi-Final for the first time in twenty-eight years. In Thailand, against seemingly impossible odds, the Wild Boars football team were rescued from an underground cave system where they had been trapped by rising flood waters.
The story told in Thailand was a true matter of life and death. If Bill Shankly – the late, great Liverpool manager – was still with us, he might have suggested that the story told in Russia was not a matter of life and death – that it was more important than that. But, whilst Shanks might have been guilty of overstating things just a little, the two footballing stories do have something important in common.
That thing is hope.
In Thailand, the situation facing the twelve boys and their coach was desperate; the likelihood of rescue slim; their chances of survival almost non-existent. It is difficult to imagine how it must have been for them, stranded in the darkness as the hours became days. But the world outside hadn’t given upon them. Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yuukongkaew of the Thai Navy, leading the rescue operation, suggested that: ”we only had a tiny bit of hope, but we had to cling onto it.”
Hope is a powerful thing.
In Russia – and for supporters at home in England – the circumstances were, ultimately, far less serious or significant. But that didn’t stop the powerful surge of hope.
In truth, we could all do with a bit of a lift at the moment. The headlines are dominated by despair: Trump and Brexit and Syria and Novichok and murder and mayhem and flooding and disease. Things can begin to seem just a little bit hope-less.
The Old Testament story of Abraham tells of an old man holding onto an old promise that he would, one day, become the father of many nations. As the years passed and he and his wife remained childless, they might have been forgiven for giving up on it all. But we are told that, “against hope, Abraham believed in hope”. And, one day, in the late autumn of their years, the promise they had been holding onto came true.
Hope is an extraordinary thing.
“But”, the England supporters in Moscow will tell you, “in the end, it’s the hope that kills you”. Except that it really isn’t. Because there’s always the next game; the next tournament; the next opportunity to start believing all over again. And, even when England lose in extra time, the dreams of another country are given flight. Much more importantly, hope means that the Wild Boars have got their next game to look forward to. It may be a little while before they’re ready to play it, but they’ll get there in the end.
In my favourite film, the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is sentenced to life in a brutal prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The years might have broken a lesser man, but he holds onto something that lies deep within him. “Remember Red,” he says to his closest friend, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” At the top of the poster advertising the film it says: “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”
As in Russia and in Thailand, so in life. Hope can set you free.