After scoring against Italy on Friday night, England striker Daniel Sturridge wheeled away and pointed his index fingers heavenward, thanking God for the goal. He’s one of a growing number of players who openly celebrate their faith on and off the pitch, but is this necessarily a good thing?
The idea that football is like a religion is a familiar and powerful one, not least because it’s intuitively convincing – any supporter of a luckless lower league club knows that his or her support is not a matter of calculated rationality but of passion, identity, and the sense of shared (mis)fortune with the rest of the tribe. John Oliver uses it to launch a well-directed missile at FIFA, if you can bear the bad language.
Historians have often argued that the rise of sport correlated with a decline in religious observance, as if sport did for people what religion used to. But as it turns out, football doesn’t just displace other faiths – it also is a platform on which they’re expressed. When Bolton Wonderer’s Fabrice Muamba collapsed on field in 2012, the response was a surprising outpouring of public religiosity. The Sun ran the front-page headline ‘God is in control’ and exhorted everyone to “pray for Muamba”. Sport themed ministries – like the Christian agency More than Gold, which follows the Olympics – and sport club chaplaincies are proliferating.
Christian players like David Luiz have been utterly unabashed about their faith – remember Luiz praying for Fernando Torres on pitch, excused by ‘sources’ as “touching his team mates for luck” (as if that would be less weird than prayer). Even our own Wayne Rooney is apparently partial to a bit of God TV. What’s going on?
From the player perspective, the main thing has been a subtle but important cultural change at the elite level. Football has always been an international game, but its centre of gravity has now moved out of secular Europe. Clubs talk openly about accessing ‘markets’ in other parts of the globe, and the highest profile leagues are thoroughly international affairs. Manchester United is, of course, a listed company on the New York Stock Exchange – the Premiership has grown on the money brought by ‘sugar daddy’ owners from overseas. There are nine non-British managers in the Premiership, and the playing staff of the Premier League is now reckoned to be less than one third English (only Cyprus has more imported players). The fans themselves might have been born 5 miles away from the home ground, or 5,000 miles.
Football imports not just players and managers, but also different cultures – and we have been reminded that secularism is a European exception to the global rule of public religiosity. In particular, the arrival of greater numbers of Muslim players in the Premiership has changed its culture in small but noticeable ways. Champagne prizes for Man of the Match awards have been phased out, and clubs have to think hard about how to handle players who fast during Ramadan. The religious practices of players have become a tangible matter of club interest and performance management, rather than part of the stuff which players largely keep to themselves. Paradoxically, the growing number of Muslim players has probably made life easier for Christians – clubs have been forced to accommodate difference. While the dressing culture of hyper-competitive machismo still prevails, its hold is loosening.
Footballing culture has also been changed by the rise of social media. Sport has always had a way of making heroes and heroines (should we say, idols?) but they have never had direct line to the public, without the filter of PR minders. Joey Barton (who has recently been promulgating his own religious views on twitter – again, mind the language) would never have ended up BBC Question Time without the platform provided by social media. Back in 2010 the FA’s Mark Whittle made a rapid Campbellian intervention when Wayne Rooney was asked about his religious beliefs – “we don’t do religion”. But whether it’s questionable political opinions or deeply held religious conviction, social media makes the personal public.
As much as we might celebrate another nail in the coffin of secularism, the new rapprochement between sport and faith carries risks as well as opportunities. One is that, without rooting themselves in a deep and authentic theological account of sport – such as that offered by Lincoln Harvey – churches and para-church organisations may default to the use and abuse sport for purely evangelistic ends, in much the same way as big corporates use it to pursue profits or despotic regimes to gain cultural legitimacy. Another is that, in their eagerness to jump on the sports ministry bandwagon, and just at the moment when people are becoming increasing wary of the social, economic and justice implications of hosting a mega-event, the churches offer unqualified and enthusiastic support rather than critical friendship. Still another that, surrounded as they are by a great cloud of witnesses, elite athletes fail to live up to their own pious declarations.
Perhaps we can learn something from looking at the Unites States, where athletes have traditionally spoken readily about their faith? Theologian Shirl Hoffman warns against too easy a synthesis between the two great American faiths of sport and Christianity – he calls it Sportianity: “a mix of locker-room psychology and athletically slanted doctrines of assertiveness and masculinity, abetted by cherry-picked Bible verses prescreened to ensure they don't contradict sport's reigning orthodoxies”.
Conversely, the more authentic, serious and meaningful the expression of faith is, the more tension it might create. FIFA doesn’t like overt expressions of faith on the football pitch, or indeed any other political or ideological declaration. In 2009, after numerous examples of Brazilian players displaying religious messages on t-shirts, it wrote to the Brazilian Football Federation reminding them of Law 4. No, not to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy, but that “The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements”. That shouldn’t come as a surprise – it’s not just the gods of football that demand worship, but Mammon too, and Jesus doesn’t pay for his advertising.