BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (BP)–Soccer was his passion and he wanted nothing more than to gain success in the game, even if it meant sacrificing his relationship with his parents.
Joel Thibault, now a chaplain for Athletes in Action in France, was convinced he would be a soccer star. Every Sunday as a teenager he chose training with his soccer club over church with his parents.
“For me, soccer was everything,” Thibault said. “I grew up in a Christian family but I preferred to go to the beach and play soccer with my friends and not go to the church.”
But soccer success was eluding Thibault — and creating even more of a rift with his parents.
“I was always frustrated when I lost, and when I came back home I had sadness,” Thibault said. “When my parents wanted to talk to me, I was closed, and when they wanted to know more about my day, I was violent with them.”
Thibault’s relationship with his parents was troubled for five years as he pursued soccer for his own glory. Finally, Thibault, 19 years old at the time, realized that “my life was going nowhere and I had no hope.”
“I just talked to God and asked Him how He could help me.”
Thibault found his answer as he read the Gospels of Luke and John and began to understand what a relationship with Christ meant. After several months of prayer and studying the Gospels, Thibault decided to follow Christ and take a break from soccer.
After seeking forgiveness from God and his parents, 28-year-old Thibault, now a husband and father, has returned to soccer but now intends to glorify God with his athletic gifts.
Thibault has worked full-time with Athletes in Action in France as a chaplain since 2005. During the World Cup he is in Bloemfontein, South Africa, leading an AIA team that is training South Africans to share their faith through soccer camps.
The French athletes teach the South Africans how to build daily training sessions that incorporate a theme, such as joy, into all the activities of the day.
Every day between 100 and 150 youth attend the soccer camps led by the AIA and South African workers. Participants learn soccer skills, hear the Gospel message of Jesus and discover how to glorify God through the game.
“Each day we share the Gospel with them and try to make some illustration with soccer life to real life,” Theibault said
After a morning of practice and lunch with the coaches, the youth face off in friendly soccer matches to apply what they have learned.
“The kids are very respectful and very happy to come every day; it’s really a pleasure to play with them and coach them,” Thibault said. “We are very proud to be here and we learn a lot from them.”
Jacob Alexander is a writer for International Mission Board’s global communication team in South Africa covering competition and ministry at the World Cup games.