It is fairly easy for me to link religion to soccer because of my nationality; a visiting Russian friend once told me, “You Americans talk about religion the way we talk about weather.” However, I don’t think it is particularly uncommon to link sports and religion. Stadiums are often called “cathedrals of the game.” Sunday gridiron football is a familiar sacrament to many in the United States. Argentina takes it one step further with the Church of Maradona: “Our Diego, who is on the pitches, Hallowed be thy left hand…” This commingling sees 8by8 Magazine likening Arsene Wenger to early Christian martyrs. Sanaa Qureshi recently wrote a magnificent post for Unusual Efforts about glimpsing the Divine in Mesut Özil. In my own life, the playing field where I learned the game was part of my church’s campus. The fact that so many association football clubs began life as church teams further drives home the point.
Arlen Pettitt wrote a beautiful article on the Set Pieces entitled “Shifting to Neutral.” Pettitt held a season ticket at Reading since the age of twelve, and it was a constant in his life. He moved to London and discovered, like most believers, the best part of faith is the (bi)weekly shared worship, and he found himself making the two hour trip to the Madejski. However, another move, this time to Newcastle, made those trips impossible. Pettitt finished by writing of an experience of visiting an empty St. James’ Park. He was able to imagine himself sitting with the Geordie faithful on a match day, but he knew it would never be quite right. I was moved by this thought of “shifting to neutral,” as it matched up with my own life experience. Soccer used to consume almost every waking moment and even a some of my sleeping moments; I’ve often woken myself attempting a headed clearance. Now, it is an achievement to stay awake and watch a whole 90 minutes of a game once my kids are asleep.
I confess to the sin of sporting apostasy. I present here my apologia for abandoning, like the Ephesians, my first love.
It all started with questions, and the community of faith is notoriously bad at dealing with those. Must a team really attempt to control possession? Why is Pep Guardiola held to a different moral standard than Brendan Rogers? Do I have to call it “football” even though I’m an American? Are fans in the stadium objectively superior beings to fans watching on television? Many congregations do not handle earnest questions or deliberate satire well, often responding with useless platitudes or indignation.
And then there is the behavior of the congregants themselves. Those belonging to organized religion (i.e., supporters groups) often appear to outsiders as self-satisfied, intemperate, obnoxious, partisan, self-righteous, disreputable, belligerent, and bullying – the Anti-Beatitudes. I’ve worshipped at the church of the old Petrovsky Stadium in Russia and seen Landscrona, the Westboro Baptist of the footballing world, lead the faithful in clashes with police (and amongst themselves). I’ve also seen the posturing and attention seeking that so turns off outsiders of the faith. There’s a popular supporters group here in my city that shouts often and loudly about how upset they are to be filmed for some corporation’s use… and then spend several hours going to great pains to be noticed by cameras; I’d write their name, but I have discovered firsthand that they do not have a sense of humor about this sort of thing. As the popular bumper sticker says: “Lord, save me from your followers.”
Never mind all that, one might say; sure, there are hypocrites out there, but most supporters are decent, kind people (as long as it’s not a derby). So, after setting aside my reservations about the followers that turned me off, I focused my mind to the study of the game. I was warned by my fundamentalist school teachers long ago about the dangers of intellectualism, and, to my great surprise, they were right. As I dove into the theological deep end of Greece’s Euro 2004 victory and Pulisball, my faith became a constant dialectic of beauty or victory. And, ultimately, I was led astray by a charismatic tempter, Jose Mourinho; it is no accident that Jonathan Wilson compares him to Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost. His Chelsea side bulldozed their way to two straight titles in ’05 and ’06, and I embraced pragmatism completely. The ends (Heaven/titles) justified the means (sins of commission/getting opponents sent off). My childlike faith in the beautiful game had transformed into rational self-interest; believe me when I say that a Randian approach to team sports is the sign of a slippery slope.
I became increasingly aware of this contradiction as I played the game. My chief objective was to ensure that I had a good game, not that the team would have a good game; when watching a match on television, victory was the only important consideration, and even that brought only a brief sense of relief rather than pleasure. I had lost all appreciation of beauty and subtlety. Soon, this became a sort of sporting nihilism. My participation was meaningless and my new objective was simply to destroy and ensure my opponent had a bad game, which, to be fair, is fairly useful just in front of the back four.
And the passion waned slowly. The Barcelona-Chelsea semifinal of the 2008-2009 Champions League drove home the absurdity of victory when evil triumphs; forgive me, Father, for I have sinned and didn’t even watch the 2010 final. I got married and had kids, which obviously pushed soccer down the list of priorities. It still was there, but I interacted with the game differently; for example, my infant son giggled every time he heard Diego Costa’s name called out, so I watched the Spanish side more often and wondered at my boy’s innate contrariness. I watched the 2014 World Cup Final in two sittings to coincide with his nap schedule. Thank God (and Mario Götze), it didn’t go to penalties, or it would have been three sittings.
Soccer was once my religion, my passion, and my pastime. Now, after pleading guilty to the sin of apostasy, I have been ruminating on what role soccer should play in my life. Since I’ve become a parent, I find my identity isn’t quite so wrapped up in which team I support or church I go to. I rarely have an opportunity to watch a full 90 minutes of a Chelsea game and usually end up simply watching highlights; in the same way, going to church with two small children means I don’t make it a full 90 minutes there either.
There is one lasting thing the game has given me though: a Saturday (or Sunday) morning ritual. A ritual that I can participate in with my two sons. Now I see the game as an opportunity to connect with my boys as they get bigger and a legacy to pass on to them. Jonathan Wilson’s “Tales of My Father” is a beautifully recontextualized “Faith of Our Fathers,” as he relates how Sunderland AFC doesn’t mean a collection of players or a manager; it means home, family, and “a sense of the club as representative of a strand of belonging stretching back generations.” That sense of home, family, and belonging is precisely what I would hope to pass on to my children. I might not have as much of a connection as I once did to my club or church, but, decades from now, my boys will find themselves thinking about Chelsea, their dad, and the nature of faith as they wake up on a Sunday morning.