When Losing is Winning

Feb 6, 2017 | Sports Friends Africa, Sports Friends Malawi

In 2012, I (Luke) wrote a blog called “When Winning is Losing.” The post was about a time when a few of the boys of Lyzee United Football Club lost their cool in a tournament and got into a fight. It resulted in quite a scene where many other teams saw the boys fail to be the witness for the gospel they hoped to be. We ended up going back to our house and talking for a long time about how winning a game at all costs is not worth it. Some of the boys stood up to apologize and reconcile with one another. It was a hard lesson that led to a beautiful moment.

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(Lyzee United in 2012)

Today I have another story from the same group of boys who we have poured our lives into over the past five years. From the beginning, our team verse on the logo has been 1 Peter 2:17 which says, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God.  Honor the King.” Our logo reads, “Yesu Ndi Mfumu” (Jesus is King). They have taken these words to heart and know how to work hard, love their neighbor and honor the King. We’ve seen these boys grown into men and they have become our family.  We’ve lost some along the way to sickness and death but the Lord has been near and an exceptional core of young men have grown up to truly love Him and care more about the kingdom of God than the trifles of this world.  Jesus has revealed himself to many of them and beckoned them to come and join his family.

On Saturday, we entered a big football (soccer) tournament in Malawi for Under-21s.  Many of the nation’s best players were there and ready to wipe the floor with us.  There was a good bit of trash-talk coming from several of the other teams as we arrived. We were certainly the youngest team, but our boys beamed with confidence in Christ. Our captain led the way, setting our minds on things above, saying “No matter what happens, let’s represent Jesus today guys!  Win or lose, we shake the hands of our opponents and treat them with the utmost respect.”  I reminded the boys that many non-believers were watching us hoping for us to fail. We didn’t know then that God had other plans.

The first whistle sounded and the boys immediately took complete control of the game.  They have been playing with each other for more than five years so they play as one body.  It’s amazing to watch, especially since they are smaller than the other teams.   We easily won our first match (3-1). The rest of the matches went the same way and we cruised through the group stages into the quarterfinals.  Many people were coming up to me as the coach and saying, “Wow! Who are these little guys and where do you come from and why do you do what you do?”  I had four opportunities to share that why during the first few games. The boys were worshipping Christ on the pitch and I was able to explain and testify to their attitudes and work ethic and point all those who questioned to the glory of Jesus Christ!  “We love Jesus, we love football, and we love you.” This was our slogan as coaches for the day as we interacted with many who asked.  It was the most God-honoring display of football that I’ve ever been a part of.

We easily won our quarterfinal game and narrowly won the semifinal game, which put us into the final.  Everyone gathered to watch our boys. We have not lost a game all year and they fought hard in this one.  Blood, mud, sweat and tears were all present.  I’ve never seen them so exhausted.   The game finished 0-0 and we ended up losing in penalty kicks. I could see the agony in the boy’s faces. Though we lost, this was our moment.

In every other tournament, I have seen in Malawi, the losing team always fights the referee or makes a scene to try to change the end result. I was amazed to watch our boys go out of their way to shake the hands of the other players.  They shook the hands of the champions and then took the second place trophy with grace and heads held high. They realized, more than winning games, we want to win souls. I wanted to explode with joy as I watched their maturity and heard the things they were saying.  The glory was being directed away from themselves and onto Jesus.   This is the goal of what we do.  Though we lost, we won! I’m actually thankful that we lost because this was a God-given opportunity for the boys to allow the Holy Spirit to work through them.

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After everything, their disappointment faded quickly and we got into the minibus. The whole way home we celebrated! It was the sweetest celebration I’ve ever experienced in sports and it was pure worship – absolute Holy Spirit-given joy in the midst of loss. I don’t think many of the boys saw me, but as they sang I wept with tears of joy to the Lord listening to their worship. It wasn’t a worship that celebrated the outcome of the tournament but worship that flowed out from hearts that are full of the love and joy of the Father. In Jesus Christ, even when we lose we can win because He has already won the battle for us on the cross.  He shed his blood for these boys and I got the blessing of hearing their praises to the King.

There are 220 active church-centered sports ministry teams like Lyzee United all over Malawi who are intentionally and effectively preaching Christ and making disciples. We are praying that God would raise up more laborers for the harvest because the fields are ripe!