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Football transcends divisions

by
02 November 2006

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My nine-year-old daughter ran out of the tunnel at Stamford Bridge last Saturday, leading her team in full Chelsea kit. It didn’t matter that it was a children’s birthday party. I was dead proud — just as I was when she declared Gianfranco Zola her favourite player of all time. This was father-daughter bonding of a special kind.

If you don’t get football, you won’t get any of this. But one person who does get it is Mark Dowd, a former monk who made a film for Channel 4 on football and religion. Now, I’ve always been sceptical about any meaningful link. The fact that Robbie Fowler and Matthew Le Tissier are both called God isn’t much to go on.

But, last week, Mark recounted to me how he had come to have a religious experience during Manchester United’s win in the 1999 UEFA Cup final. Having been living in the jungle in South America, he wangled a press ticket and flew to Barcelona for the night. Towards the end of that classic match, he realised that everybody he loved in the world was watching that one small ball. Even friends in the jungle would have been listening on the radio. Here was a realisation of a deep sense of connectedness that stretched over continents and generations.

Often on Saturday afternoons, I’ll attend this intense form of charismatic worship, along with thousands of others, all brothers and sisters in blue. Hoarse with singing, I’ll frequently embrace complete strangers. If I can’t go, I watch the Songs of Praise version on Match of the Day. OK, perhaps there is a link.

My favourite football and religion anecdote features the Most Revd George Carey, a well-known Arsenal fan, on his first visit to Highbury as Archbishop. The Chief Rabbi, another Arsenal fan, was there, too. They got stuffed 6-2. Proof that God doesn’t exist, some muttered. Proof that he supports Manchester United, the Chief Rabbi retorted.

This is just the sort of banter that forges a surprising bond. Andrew Carey (George’s son and a columnist for another church newspaper) and I are on different sides of many of the more acrimonious debates in the Church. Football banter has the ability to push all that aside. At the General Synod, I look forward to a beer with Andrew, and a chance to gloat about the travails of Arsenal (I’m sure Andrew does, too — Editor).

Football transcends the divides of class, colour, creed — even church politics. And, times being what they are, I’ll take my miracles where I can find them. Reconciliation is precious stuff, however achieved and however fleeting.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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