For the committed supporter, football is a form of suffering with enjoyment a bonus. This is the key to unlocking the mood of the nation at major tournaments.
For those who dislike football, the 2014 World Cup is a bitter pill to swallow at the end of a season that began at the start of the previous August. A few seasons ago, Sky Sport’s marketing billboards proclaimed ‘football is our religion’. This would nicely account for the philosopher clown Jean Baudrillard’s neo-Marxist observation that ‘power is only too happy to make football bear a diabolical responsibility for stupefying the masses’. I think he means we’re being duped into missing what really matters in life, incidentally.
It is no longer so easy to claim that football does not matter when the global industry is calculated in billions of pounds and successful clubs are profitable brands in the same league as Nike or Wal-Mart. The only difference is that ordinary people care deeply about how well their football club is doing. While Sky TV has provided the economic engine for growth in the English game, it is the writing of Arsenal-besotted Nick Hornby which has given the supporters a witty and articulate voice in trying to explain to people who do not care about the game why it matters so much to others. For the committed supporter, football is a form of suffering with enjoyment merely a bonus. No-one relaxes watching their own team play until they are 3-0 up because getting a goal back at 2-0 puts a team right back in the game and as few teams win by three goal margins, the lines of worry are permanently etched on the fan.
I suspect that some Christian football fans struggle with the secret shame of uncontrollable mood swings every weekend. They are embarrassed that a win on a football pitch should matter so much to their happiness when there are so many more important issues to get excited about in their faith, yet seem unable to control their impulses. Being a fan is a mild addiction at best.
Radio commentator Alan Green represents one end of a spectrum with his anger and obsession for the game, like a jealous lover; veteran Jimmy Armfield the other end to which some of us might aspire, with a whimsical and wry perspective on the game worthy of Ecclesiastes, which in truth was probably forged by having to commentate on too many dour windswept North-West derbies.
God made us playful and football is a disarmingly simple game to watch and play. There is also breathtaking beauty in the movements of some of the game’s finest exponents, like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi who can sweep through the hardest defence like a ballet dancer gliding across the stage.
The game also holds a mirror up to the grace of God in the rest of life. Big turning points in football often hinge on small incidents over which teams have little control – an injury, an off-side flag, a disallowed penalty. There are many trivial events in the life of faith which seem insignificant at the time but which turn out to have huge implications. Experience of these teaches us not to be so controlling of our circumstances and to develop curiosity in how God is going to use them.
Many teams justify a win as a result of their strategic actions when it may just as well be in spite of it. The margins are so narrow in sport that teams sometimes draw the wrong conclusions from their success and sow the seeds of eventual failure. The mission of the Church calls for strategic planning but we should not presume that evidence of God at work is an endorsement of the strategy. God’s grace is free and unfettered, asking us to amend our strategy in the light of his will rather than sticking rigidly to our traditions because they have worked in the past.
This summer there are only two options really: switch off and try something new or relax and enjoy the spectacle. You know we’ll go out on penalties in the end, so why worry?
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