I don’t like football
I don’t like football. I associate the game with personal physical embarrassment and unthinking tribalism. Physical embarrassment, because my earliest sense of personal identity arose from being ‘that fat kid that can’t play football; tribalism, because of memories of children being taken aside by gangs of youths at school and beaten if they gave the wrong answer to ‘Who do you support?’1 This impression is not new, Thomas Elyot, writing in the 16th century, described the game as ‘nothing but beastly fury, and extreme violence, whereof proceedeth hurt’ producing a nature in its participants whereby ‘rancour and malice do remain.’2
Football has faced a severe decline in the post war years. Far fewer people play the game and go to matches than did sixty years ago. It has been a decline to rival, and probably outstrip, that faced by the Church.
Fortunately for football, declining involvement has been balanced by increasing income from TV rights and commercial sponsorship. Its profile in the public consciousness has also been maintained because of a focus on the bigger clubs in the higher leagues, and the rise of a cult of celebrity ready to embrace superbly fit, talented and photogenic young men with fascinatingly turbulent personal lives.
But I suspect football does not have a bleak future. It is after all ‘the beautiful game’.3 In recent years my sense of emotional rejection has given way to a grudging admiration for the balletic skills and sheer physicality of the very best. It remains accessible to any boy or girl from even the poorest background. To those living unhealthy and sedentary lives it offers superb exercise. Institutionally, the Football Association and the clubs themselves are dealing with the game’s attachment to macho yob culture and racism. In the last twenty years attending a football ground has become a safer and more pleasant experience and attendances have shown signs of recovery. I wish it well. The Church has a lesson to learn. We too have faced decline. We have given many people bad experiences and negative associations. People have come to Church and found a cool welcome and an alien environment. We are associated not with love and unity but sectarianism and division. There is nothing wrong with the ‘product’, but an awful lot wrong with the culture associated with it. From the domestic armchair, people have remained as spiritual as ever but have decisively rejected their local Church. But newer churches, and even Anglican dioceses such as London, Chelmsford and Truro, have changed themselves and turned decline into growth in recent years. They have focussed on making the Christian faith something for everyone, not just an educated or social Úlite. And they have not been afraid to broaden their culture to meet the needs of a new generation.
Despite my own lack of interest in football, and unlike some Scottish MPs, I certainly do not wish England ill in their World Cup campaign. If we get to the final I may even find myself shamefacedly praying for Rooney’s foot and looking for an excuse to avoid Evensong on 9th July. I shall also be looking closely to see if English football is continuing to put its house in order, and reflecting critically on whether God’s house is doing the same.
1 Strangely enough, they were rarely impressed by my own response that the grammatically correct way of framing the question should have been ‘Whom do you support?’
2 Sir Thomas Elyot, The Governor, 1531
3 A widely used phrase based on PelÚ’s 1977 autobiography My life and the beautiful game.
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