The question of what we are thankful for doesn’t get a lot of attention throughout much of the year, but on the fourth Thursday in November it becomes a primary topic of conversation - only outranked by the “stuffing in the turkey or dressing not in the turkey” debate. As a dressing not in the turkey kind of cook, my concern is entirely on the topic of thankfulness, and this year I am going a bit rogue by stating that I am thankful for a man named Jules Rimet. Relatively unknown outside of the world of soccer, Rimet is a man worthy of our gratitude as well as our imitation.
Certainly I am thankful for Jules Rimet because he was the man who, as President of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), was able to implement his greatest dream - to unite the world through sport. Rimet, whose interest in soccer was more pragmatic than romantic, thought that the soccer boom of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries could be used for a higher purpose, and thus the World Cup was born. It is this concern for the “higher purpose” of soccer that makes me most grateful for the life and work of Jules Rimet.
In 1956 Rimet, retired President of FIFA and the namesake of the original World Cup Trophy, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifelong efforts to, as his grandson has said, “propagate understanding and reconciliation between the races of the world” through the sport of soccer. Rimet was an idealist who from his teen years onward tried to use sport to put into practice the teachings of Pope Leo XIII’s social justice encyclical Rerum Novarum, subtitled “On the Conditions of Workers.”
Had Rimet lived to see the World Cup tournament being staged this month and next in Qatar he would certainly be outraged that his dream was now associated with the numerous accounts of abuse of migrant workers used to prepare the country for the most popular sporting event on the planet. For a man who fought for the rights of soccer players to be paid for their work and who fought against class discrimination in the soccer world of his day the recent scandals associated with FIFA and the World Cup would be devastating.
The driving force of Rimet was not television contracts, advertising rights, or kickbacks and bribes. What mattered to Rimet was making Paris, and then France, Europe, and the world a better place by instituting a Catholic vision of social justice in the world of soccer. From the time he first read Laborem Exercens at the age of seventeen Rimet worked to make Catholic social doctrine a reality - first by becoming a lawyer, and then by founding Red Star F.C. in and for the working class in the Saint-Ouen suburb of Paris, and then by founding and then leading both the French Football Federation and FIFA.
Because of the terrible press that the Qatar World Cup and FIFA have earned it is easy to forget what the World Cup could have been had it retained the ideals of Jules Rimet. Back in 2018 and 2019 Rimet did get some media publicity, but not in the New York Times or on the BBC like FIFA and Qatar, but in the Catholic Herald, a London-based Catholic paper, and on The Football Times website. The title of both articles was “The Catholic Visionary Who Founded the World Cup,” and they both contrasted the present situation in world soccer with what Rimet had hoped it would become.
For all those who try to bring a Catholic vision, especially a Catholic social justice vision, to our interactions with others, Jules Rimet should be known and imitated. He did all he could to bring a Catholic purpose to all of his efforts in the world of soccer, and he laid the foundation for what could have been, at its core, a tournament that was not only “catholic” in the sense of being worldwide, but “Catholic” in the sense of being tethered to the social justice teachings of the 20th and 21st Century popes from Leo XIII to Francis.
Each Thanksgiving it is common for people sitting around the table to say what they are grateful for before they gorge themselves on turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and the rest. Without mentioning Jules Rimet by name, although that would certainly spark a question or two amidst the passing of rolls and butter after grace is said, we might want to mention that we are grateful for all those people who - even in an area as seemingly unimportant as sports - strive to use their power and influence not in the service of their own selfish desires, but in the service of Christ through working for justice for our sisters and brothers in need.