Football has a strange power. Some people even say it’s their religion.
In April this year, a couple of weeks after the final findings of the Hillsborough inquest, I had the privilege of seeing Liverpool play in the Premier League. At the start of the game the home club, Swansea, presented the away fans a wreath to show solidarity with the bereaved. At that moment a rousing chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone rang out across the stadium.
Arms and scarves were raised as the song was sung. A chill raced down my spine. A lump formed in my throat. Goosebumps bristled on my arms. There was an electric poignancy about the atmosphere there. I’m not one for tears, but I came close.God didn’t invent football, but He did invent the great myriad of emotions that keep us in thrall to the beautiful game. He invented play, and movement, and camaraderie. He invented balance, coordination and skill. These are all good things that we can find to enjoy in football.
The problem is that we enjoy these things without a moment’s thought of the goodness of God in providing them for us. It is our nature, as fallen beings, to obscure the hand of the Creator. We enjoy the gifts and forget the giver. Thus it has ever been.
When Paul approached the worshippers on Mars Hill in Acts 17, I imagine him to have seen something not too far removed from a modern sports crowd. He saw large numbers of people gathered there. He saw the place of their worship. He saw their devotion and their fervour. He recognised, however, that all of it was misdirected. The Athenians were ignorant. Their fervent worship was all in the service of an ‘unknown god’. The one who ought to have been at the centre was missing.
The good that produced such devotion among these Athenians was actually an inward longing for the God of the good. The same is true for many football fans. There are elements of religious feeling, and powerful emotions tied up with the football experience, but ultimately they make the same mistake as the worshippers on Mars Hill. They realise there is something of deeper value there, just below the surface, but its cause and source remains unknown to most.
Paul recognises this when he says that God is not far from each one of us (17:27). In many ways God, given that His whole creation declares His glory, is close at all times. He is very near to us in moments of great excitement, in moments of joy, in moments of beauty, because He has created those moments. And so He is often near to us when we watch football. That is why some people confuse football with religion.
During Euro 2016 the stadiums of France will be full of worshippers. They will sing, and praise, and worship. They will partake in the blessings of their existence in a universe that displays day and night the glory of the Creator. They will do so simultaneously ‘ignorantly’ and ‘not far’ from God.
Who will declare Him?
Sport: what’s the point: join the threads team, Christians In Sport, CVM and SPCK publishers in London on 29 June for a discussion on faith, society and sport. Get your tickets here.