Some might call football the beautiful game, but if beauty is in the eye of the beholder not all of what we’re seeing looks beautiful. As the FIFA World Cup 2018 gets underway, we see two polar responses: some dismiss sports as merely a game, while others worship in the football arena, as though it were a god.[1]

“The Apostle Paul seemed to appreciate sports, or he was at least familiar with them, using athletic metaphors such as running the race (1 Cor 9:24), fighting the good fight (1 Tim 6:12), and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).”[2]

While Paul seems to focus on the athletic side of things with his use of sports metaphors, what of the crowd? The observers who sit in the stands, round televisions and behind keyboards have as much to say about racism and sexuality as they do about football, and that doesn’t seem to part of part of the beautiful game.

What happens to us when a major sports event takes place? When crowds are chanting homophobic slurs at players, and assumed loyalties between countries are broken leading to leading to calls through religious targeting to fight back.[3]

So what are we playing at? “Many sports spectators experience something akin to worship.”[4] Why is that? Perhaps because supporting and following something deeply, be it football, hockey, induvial athletes etc., gives us both identity and community. We identify with the team we support. In the world cup we generally identify with the team that represent our country of birth, especially I we have grown up in and developed and affinity with its customs, cultural mindset and shared history.

In countries where there are multiple football teams, or example England many people support the team from the place they were born or grew up, however many do not. Take Manchester United for example, I remember on a tour of Old Trafford the guide telling us that 95% of the club’s fans have never been to a match. He estimated there were around 8 million around the world. Affiliation: choosing a team.

Affiliation is like joining a family or a pack. It doesn’t matter what you have in common with the others in your pack, the point is that you all chose to be part of it. I guess the same is true of religion. You might grow up worshipping in a church, mosque, synagogue or temple, and have an affinity with that religion and the associated deities. Similarly you may come to faith later in life and choose to affiliate with a particular faith group.

As an Anglican priest I can only speak to my experience in the Christian faith. As a person, I believe that all people of faith living out their beliefs are generally trying to do what they think is right, also that all faiths and sacred scriptures can be manipulated (including in Christianity) to bring about hateful chants and actions akin to football thuggery (Football hooliganism in England dates back to the 1880s!) and to exclude people based on race, gender, sexuality etc. or even as an excuse to act out aggressions using a pack mentality where individual accountability is lost.

All this talk of hoodlums may be bringing you down, so let’s get back to the beautiful game. What is the FIFA World Cup? A competition. Can you be a good neighbour to your opponent while tackling them and blocking their shots? Good news! You can! The word “Competition” comes from the Latin com-petito literally means “to strive together,” rendering sport a “mutually acceptable quest for excellence.”[5]

So whoever we cheer for while the World Cup is on, let’s try and keep the beautiful game beautiful. Let’s say no to pundits and trolls who want to talk about appearance, sexuality, race and religion or inspire people to exclude others, chant slurs and make the football arena and unsafe space.

Whichever team you’re going for by affiliation, remember we all have an affinity as fans of the beautiful game, and if you’re not a football fan, we all have an affinity as human beings, and we can strive together in every arena.

 

By The Revd. Lucy Price

[1] http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/more-than-a-game-theology-of-sport Accessed 18th June 2018.

[2] “We Are the Champions! Origins and Developments of the Image of God’s Athlete,” in Sport and Spirituality: An Exercise in Everyday Theology, ed. Gordon R. Preece and Rob Hess (Adelaide, Australia: ATF, 2009), 49–64.

[3] https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2018/06/248551/world-cup-moroccan-fans-boo-saudi-fans-insult-turki-al-sheikh/ Accessed 18th June 2018.

[4] Allen Guttman, Sports Spectators (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 177.

[5] Stuart Weir, “Competition as Relationship: Sport as a Mutual Quest for Excellence,” in The Image of God in the Human Body: Essays on Christianity and Sports, ed. Donald Deardorff and John White (Lampeter, Wales: Mellen, 2008), 101–22; See also Watson and Parker, who add, “Etymologically, sport competition can be understood as a ‘mutual striving together for excellence’ (Greek, arête) in which opponents honor their opponents and cooperate to bring out the best in one another” (“Sports and Christianity: Mapping the Field,” 32, cf. 53).