Soccer Moment Opens Doors for Witness in Spain
MALAGA, SPAIN (April 17, 2008) – Erin Neises never dreamed her mission work at a church-run fitness center would lead to playing on one of the country’s top soccer teams and even scoring in one of its most important games of the season.
Neises, who was one of North Park University’s all-time best players, graduated in 2006 with a degree in athletic training. Since then she has been serving as a short-term missionary with Comunidad Cristiana Evangelica Parque Victoria, where Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries Eugenio and Pia Restrepo are part of the pastoral staff.
The Malaga church uses the fitness center and multiuse building as a major way of reaching into the community. One of Neises’ main duties is as athletic trainer, offering sports medicine rehabilitation and consultation with anyone who has a sports-related injury.
“The cool part of all of this is that God gives us many avenues to reach out and relate to many people,” Neises says. “I have been very fortunate to use sport as my means of contacting and meeting people.” Those relationships give the opportunity to share the gospel.
Through a contact at the church, she was invited to participate as the only non-national player on the Malaga FC team. The squad plays at the Primer Nacional level, which is one division below Super Liga, the highest league for women in Spain. Malaga “has an amazing history” in the region and captured the division title last year, Neises says.
“The cool part about soccer in Europe is that teams in lower divisions have opportunities to move up to the higher divisions by winning and by winning their league,” Neises says.
On April 6, Malaga was playing an important game against Granada. The two teams were locked in a tie for first place, but Granada had won an earlier contest, giving it an advantage in the standings. With the regular season ending April 20, Malaga needed not only to win, but also score multiple goals should there be a tie in the records of the two teams. The winner likely would play against several regional winners to determine who gets to move up to the Super Liga.
Neises had seen limited playing time, but desperately wanted to get into such an important match. Malaga went up 1-0 in the first half, but Neises had watched the match from the sideline.
In the second half, Malaga’s coach told Neises to warm up and be prepared to substitute in the match. But as Neises anxiously prepared, minute after minute flew by and she wondered whether her excitement would have been for nothing. Then with 20 minutes left, the coach called her name.
Neises credits God with giving her an energy rush and an extra ability to focus. Just minutes later, Malaga counterattacked and a teammate crossed the ball to Neises.
“I gave the biggest leap of my life to get my head on that ball!” Neises exclaims. “And before I opened my eyes to know what had happened the ball hit the upright-post and crossed the line making it a goal to never forget.
“I became filled with joy looking to the stands where all the people that love me and that I love were jumping for joy and yelling my name,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, God, what have you done inside of me?”
The moment was a high point so far for Neises, who says it gives her the opportunity to earn more respect and will help build friendships that often are difficult to form in Spain and take a long time. “I have been part of this team since January and only now in April am I starting to be talked to more and respected more.”
Neises adds, “The Spanish culture can be very harsh at times, and women's soccer is not the most positive environment. “People complain and complain no end, which can bring down the mood, especially when I, for example, am accustomed to a totally different soccer environment.”
She is looking forward to changing the environment of those around her. “I am still building relationships with my teammates and trying to identify with their culture,” Neises adds. “I want to see my ministry arrive to the point where we pray before each game and we have good, meaningful talks about who Jesus Christ is. I want each one of them to find out who Jesus is as he is their father, their friend, their brother, and their road to eternity in heaven. I also want them to identify and accept the will of God in their lives.”
Living near the Mediterranean Sea has helped her keep a healthy attitude and hopeful outlook. “To me the sea has been a clear representation of God's grace, God’s spirit, God’s refreshment, God’s peace, God’s friendship, God’s image, and God's solitude. His ocean has brought amongst me a balance in life that could not be sweeter. I have done so many meaningful things since arriving in August, but nothing can compare to living on the beach.”
Neises credits her education at North Park for preparing her to minister in Spain. “The one thing most clear to me is that it prepared my life for service and significance,” she says. “North Park has taken a young girl at age 18, and by age 22 has made me into a person living for the will of God.”