Here are some very unsystematic thoughts about theology and football. As I write, England await Croatia in the semi-finals of World Cup 2018. They may win this semi-final; they may win the whole tournament. That is simply not the point. The point is this: is there any justification for something like football from a theological perspective? Shouldn’t we all simply be spending our time praying more, and giving alms to the homeless, visiting the sick, reading the Bible, and so on? Aren’t there always better things to do than watching football? Isn’t it simply a waste of time to watch a group of overpaid, inarticulate young men kick a pig’s bladder around a large field? What kind of degenerate culture are we living in when success in this area makes us feel excited about and proud of being “English”, that most hated of nationalities? From a religious perspective, isn’t it simply idolatry to shout and cheer, and to praise those who achieve great heights in the arena of sport? Shouldn’t we be shouting and praising Jesus instead? If we were as passionate about Jesus as we are about Harry Kane then surely through our zeal our country would be re-evangelized in a moment, and we would once again enjoy the good old days in which everyone was a Christian, and we could put all this secularism nonsense behind us. To paraphrase Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons: Everyone is saying “Gareth this”, and “Jordan that”; but no-one is saying “Worship this” and “Jericho that”!
This topic is far larger than I can address in a simple blog post because it boils to fundamental questions concerning the nature of creation and indicates a dualism in Western culture that automatically makes a separation between the material or secular and the spiritual or religious. This material/secular, spiritual/religious dichotomy is arguably at the heart of what it is when we talk about Modernity. (There are many other things too, but this is certainly one of them.)
But I’m not interested in talking about that as such. What I am interested in is the way that football seems to be meaningful. It appears to give life a sense of meaning and excitement and drama. Is this all illusory? Is it “just a game”, or is there something more to it than that? Certainly there is something more to it for those who play it because their careers are bettered or worsened by the result, and they get paid more or less money and so on. But what about those of us who support, and whose support doesn’t have any tangible effect on our lives in general?
There are many answers which may satisfy us in a superficial way: football brings people together; it gives them a sense of common identity; it has certainly been good for our economy to progress this far in the world cup; we all need time to relax and recharge in order to re-engage with the important business of life. But I think that there is a deeper reason here. And in order to draw this out, I would make a comparison with literature and stories in general.
We all like stories. Stories are in a very central way what give our lives meaning. When I hear sermons, I must confess that my mind often wanders. But tell me a story, a good story, and I will not need persuasion to listen. When we read good literature, we are engaging a story, not just to be entertained, but to understand, to have greater insight, to be ennobled, to feel more acute empathy for others who inhabit different geographies or chronologies, perhaps even to be moved, not for emotional self-indulgence, but through desire to see life as it really is in its depths. During the England v. Columbia game the other day, one of the pundits, Martin Keown, quipped, “There are probably some people at home reading books. You need to get a life.” This remark was perhaps unfair, and one might be worried that literature will not survive such a scathing attack. But it probably will endure – just about – and for the sorts of reasons that I suggest.
The point is, therefore, that football can be thought of as similar to literature. Of course one can use football as an excuse for hooliganism and violence; anything can be misused. But football in its highest and greatest moments (like all sport with the exception of golf, which is unredeemable) is a compelling story that is all about life. It is life through a funnel of intensity that brings human emotion and the human story into a razor-like sharpness of focus. It speaks to us of longing, of striving, of growth, of success and failure, of maturity and belligerence, of glory, of pride and humility, of anxiety and relief, and of a hundred other things besides. We can learn to be better people through watching football, live better lives. We can also learn to be worse. Football is full of exemplars of greater and lesser moral worth: who would I rather imitate in my everyday life, Gareth Southgate who magnanimously and empathetically consoled the Columbian who missed his penalty and lost his team the match, or Diego Maradona, who, when his team beat Sweden, stuck both of his middle fingers up at the opposition supporters? How should I conduct myself, with the drive, poise and honesty of Harry Kane, or should I writhe around on the floor like a baby, pretending that I am in agony, in order to cheat my team to victory like Neymar? Should I spend more time and money on my haircut or more time and money on improving my abilities and looking to conduct myself in a more honourable manner? Should I, in other words, elect for style over substance or the reverse? Football can teach us about these things and much more. When we go to see a film in the cinema nobody asks us why we were excited or scared or moved or happy or sad at the end. We were those things because we were engaged with the characters involved, because we empathized with them, and learned from their story. Football is very similar.
That’s what I think anyway. Maybe I’m biased.