The wait is over. Europe's biggest sporting event is finally upon us. Euro 2016 kicks off in France this weekend, and will feature a glittering array of footballing superstars: Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and of course James Milner. But while for most players, lifting the tournament trophy on July 10th would represent the pinnacle of their career, there are some who are not just motivated by earthly goals (you can obviously see what I did there).
As at every great sports tournament, there are various competitors who also happen to be Christians. The watching world spots them crossing themselves as they run on to the pitch, or pointing to the heavens to celebrate a goal, but these external signals belie a serious commitment to faith from many players. Here are just a few of the big names who'll be lighting up the footballing world over the next few weeks for their national teams, but also count themselves part of the God Squad.
Daniel Sturridge - England
Perhaps the Premier League's most famous and overt Christian player, Sturridge celebrated his goal against Italy in the last world cup by mouthing the words 'I love you Jesus, and I praise you father.' He's frequently found talking about his faith on social media, tweeting pictures from church or dropping the occasional Bible verse. England fans will be praying he recovers top form during the tournament after an injury-plagued season for Liverpool; on his day he's as good as anyone.
Christian Benteke - Belgium
Like Sturridge, Benteke is a striker who has suffered a stop-start year for Liverpool, but will be hoping for the chance to remind fans why he cost £32.5million last summer. He told the Birmingham Mail that he thanks God for his abilities, in response to questions about his trademark sky-pointing celebration. "I do the celebration because I believe in God," said Benteke. "So when I score the first thing I have to do is say thank-you to him. He has given me the power to score. I am a very religious person. I pray before the game and I pray after the game."
Mario Götze - Germany
German football's poster-boy scored the winner in the 2014 World Cup final, and become famed for his religiously-themed Facebook updates during that tournament. Götze told his fans his life was governed by "Trust, hope, strength, faith," and added "Dear God, I want to take a minute. Not to ask you for something. But simply to say thank you for everything I have." After his last, successful tournament, coach Joachim Low labelled him the 'miracle boy'; he'll be hoping for a similarly miraculous performance this time around.
Wayne Rooney - England
I see you raising that eyebrow, but it's true: England's all-time record goalscorer is a committed believer. Rooney famously tweeted a God TV evangelist to tell him how "powerful and touching" he found his broadcast, and followed that up with a second message to the station which said: "I'm watching and feel you. Much love." A fascinating opinion piece from journalist Adam Forrest in 2014 recognised that Rooney has not been allowed to publicly 'do God' by the FA, possibly because of his ethnic background. The player enters Euro 2016 as the subject of fans' concerns around form and quality; perhaps his faith will give him the mental strength he needs to prove the doubters wrong.
Romelu Lukaku - Belgium
The powerful Everton centre-forward is one of European football's hottest young properties, and he's another who credits the Almighty whenever he finds the net (which he does, a lot). In interviews, he frequently namedrops God; when asked about who should be picked in the Belgium team he enigmatically replied: "every man for himself, and God for us all", while he recently appeared in a TV commercial in which he admitted to reading the Bible three times a day. (Unfortunately the context of that comment was somewhat mysogynistic, and made him the target of a Belgian Internet backlash...)
There are no doubt many more Christian players littered throughout the tournament's 24 squads (if you know of one, by all means let me know), and we'll profile them here in the coming weeks. For now though, since we don't believe God takes sides in football matches, let's all sit back and pray for a fantastic, peaceful festival of football where the talking points happen on the pitch.