Euro 2008 star mixes football and faith

By Ecumenical News International
20 Jun 2008

Swiss soccer player Johan Vonlanthen says he has undergone phenomenal changes since he made his debut as an international soccer player - he has discovered that much of his success on the field is attributed to his Christian faith - writes Anna Blachut.

Not that belief equals easy victory, however. Co-hosts Switzerland have taken an early exit from the Euro 2008 tournament, with Germany, Holland and Italy among the favourites to lift the trophy.

"Before each match I give thanks to God and pray, on the pitch I find strength in him, faith has helped me become a new person. The presence of Jesus in my life has enabled me to become closer to God," Vonlanthen told the Swiss newspaper Le Matin when he spoke about the Euro 2008 soccer tournament, co-hosted by Switzerland and Austria.

Vonlanthen is not the only player in the once every four years soccer tournament who chooses to put his trust in God on and off the field during the tournament to find Europe's top team.

Croatian player Ivan Klasnic became the first player to take part in the European tournament after a kidney transplant in 2007. Yet he went on to score a goal in the second half on 16 June to give his country a 1-0 victory against Poland in Klagenfurt, Austria.

"I’m happy that I’m here at all," the 28-year-old Klasnic, who suffers from a rare kidney disease, told reporters after the match. "This is like a bonus from God. It's like a dream. I thank God that I'm alive and that I can play football."

Vonlanthen began his international football career at the 2004 European Football Championship four years prior and scored a spectacular goal against France on 21 June 2004 at the age of 18 as the youngest player to grace the tournament. As a prodigious player, Vonlanthen made his first league debut at the age of 16.

Now possessing hindsight into his quick rise to fame, he recalls a lack of preparation for the events that followed. "They expected too much of me … all I wanted to do was play the game. I've come a long way since then, I am no longer just a soccer player, there are more important things to me than success."

Born in Columbia in 1986, Johan Vonlanthen Benavidez has been playing for the Swiss Team in the Euro 2008 competition, and as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he claims that the Bible is the essence of his transformation.

Indeed during in a recent match for Switzerland against Austria he revealed an undershirt on which he had written the words, "Jesus is my captain". He was eager to exhibit it again at during the Euro 2008 contest.

His new found faith has also spurred Vonlanthen to help others follow in his faith through the construction of a church in his grandmother's village in Colombia. If all goes well, this project should be completed during the Euro 2008.

Meanwhile in Vienna, the latest Miss Austria has installed a "peace zone" as an area that people or Euro 2008 supporters may visit if they are looking for quiet.

"Unlike Fan Zones this is an activity of the Christian church. Here, silence is the winner," Tajana Batinic told Le Matin on 16 June. The top model used her strong Christian faith to break stereotypes of her profession as an inspiration to others.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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