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Football: God squad makes the first team

by
13 August 2021

Star players of the new generation of England footballers embody Christian faith and values, writes Hannah Rich

Alamy

Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling before England played Scotland at Wembley Stadium in the Euros Group stages in June

Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling before England played Scotland at Wembley Stadium in the Euros Group stages in June

THIRTY years ago, the singer-songwriter Billy Bragg wrote “God’s Footballer”, about a player who “hears the voices of angels” above the stadium crowds and “scores goals on a Saturday And saves souls on a Sunday”. It was a reference to Peter Knowles, a former Wolverhampton Wanderers striker who retired prematurely from football in 1970 when he became a Jehovah’s Witness.

The lyrics and Mr Knowles’s story both pointed towards the idea that personal faith and professional football are ultimately incompatible, or, at best, entirely detached from each other.

Football has changed enormously since then, as has the part played by religion in public life. Yet it seems that the intersection of Christianity and football has also expanded, perhaps unexpectedly. England’s Euro 2020 squad was, it has been suggested, the most Christian for several decades, in terms of both professed beliefs and practised values.

Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Raheem Sterling have all been vocal about the influence that their Christian faith has had on their approach to life and football. Against the sociological odds, the current generation of footballers are seemingly more open than ever about the part that their faith plays in their lives.

Linvoy Primus in his playing days

The face of Christianity in football is vibrant and varied and, as such, the sport embodies the evolving cultural and religious diversity of modern Britain. Against the backdrop of perceived religious decline, one of the key areas of congregational growth in recent years has been in Black Majority churches, particularly those in the Pentecostal tradition.

This reverberates within the national football team; the England trinity of Rashford, Saka, and Sterling are characteristic of the black British Christianity in which all three were brought up.

Delroy Hall, who works as a psychotherapist and lecturer alongside his job as chaplain to Sheffield United, says that the example of players who take their faith as seriously as their football, and are used to being open about that, contrasts with white British cultural attitudes to religion.

“Faith is something far more overt for many of the players now, whereas for [white British] players it has typically been a more private thing. Those from different cultures are more open about faith and have no shame in saying they have a faith tradition.”

The acute influence that migration has had on the Churches is apparent in football, extending beyond players such as Mr Rashford, whose grandparents were among the Windrush generation, to more recent waves of international players who have joined the Premier League.

 

AlamyMarcus Rashford plays for England against Scotland at Wembley Stadium, during the Euros group stages in June

IT IS clear to see how demographic changes in top-flight squads may have contributed to this. When the Premier League began in 1992, only 13 of 218 players were from overseas, barely enough to fill a team sheet. Eleven were from European countries, and five were Scandinavian. In contrast, in 2020-21 there were players of 64 different nationalities, representing 53 per cent of all players.

The proportion of players from ethnic-minority backgrounds has doubled over the same time period. This has brought with it a greater diversity of religious traditions, be it South American players from a Pentecostal tradition or Eastern European players who are practising Roman Catholics. There are also a growing number of Muslim players, predominantly of African heritage.

Matt Baker is the national director for England and pastoral-support director for English football at Sports Chaplaincy UK. This increase in players from abroad, he says, has given homegrown players greater confidence in discussing religion.

“Individuals who have grown up in this country are more confident owning and talking about their faith. It has definitely had that knock-on effect that people feel less awkward or less embarrassed about talking about their own beliefs. It’s not so unusual now to have players of different faiths and traditions in the dressing room talking about it, compared with 25 years ago.”

In previous generations, the notion of what it meant to be a Christian in sport boiled down to the dilemma of not playing on Sundays, often at the expense of personal success. Today’s players, in contrast, articulate faith as an integral part of their football career rather than in competition with it.

The former Premier League defender Linvoy Primus now works with Christians in Sport to support young Christians in the game. He says that, compared with his contemporaries, they have a greater understanding of the fact that there should not be a fundamental separation between faith and sport.

“They’re recognising that it’s not about Sunday morning, then you go off and do your sport. It’s about every day of your life. There’s a very ordinary sort of witness going on. They’re playing with freedom and talking about their faith with freedom, because there is a greater acceptance out there, now.

“They want to live their lives in a way that honours God. They won’t be perfect, and they’ll make mistakes, but, as long as they know they can come back to a loving Father who doesn’t judge them on their performances or results, then that’s a safe place to be.

“I often hear players I work with saying that they don’t understand the situation, but they trust God through it. That’s because their faith isn’t superficial. There’s a depth to it that’s come through challenges and moments where God’s proved himself.”

 

The Revd Pete Horlock, chaplain to Manchester CityTHE Revd Peter Horlock, chaplain to Manchester City, says that, in his work, he has been struck by the authenticity of players’ faith and the way in which they connect it with their footballing talent and life outside the game. He refers to the time he was introduced to one player for the first time, and, within minutes, the conversation turned to the profound influence that the Holy Spirit had had in the player’s life.

“For those I know who have an active Christian faith, it is who they are. It is their identity, and they see it as a God-given gift to play football. I have been humbled by their humility about it.”

“Thank God I had football,” Mr Sterling wrote in 2018. This simple acknowledgement of God and the blessing of the sport came in between paragraphs about his father’s murder in Jamaica, and childhood memories of his mother’s struggle to make ends meet. In a candid 2019 interview with GQ magazine, he said: “My faith is massive. I always give thanks for my life and my family’s life. . . I’ve got no doubt [that there’s a God]. I know for sure.”

 

The transformative power of football is evident. Yet the further the game has lifted these players from the material challenges of their upbringing, the greater the importance of the values it has given them. Mr Rashford said in The Guardian earlier this year that he believed “the faith we have in God is shown by the people that we are”, and acknowledged the part that his mother’s religious beliefs had played in his childhood.

His activism concerning food poverty (News, 19 June 2020) displays a strong connection to the community where he grew up, as well as a deep gratitude to God for a football career that has transformed his and his family’s lives: “If you could see our lives 15 to 20 years ago, to where we are now, it’s impossible not to have faith in God and all he does for us.”

Belief in God can root players in being human, spotlight, and put football into perspective. For Mr Rashford, there is an inherently practical dimension to his Christian faith, driven by his background and evident in his campaigning work.

In several places, foodbank staff report high-profile footballers, including a number who are known for their faith, visiting quietly and unceremoniously to volunteer or donate food. The Liverpool winger Sadio Mané, a practising Muslim, made headlines in 2018 when footage emerged of him cleaning lavatories at his local mosque as an act of service, hours after scoring at Anfield.

With Mr Rashford especially prominent, there is a sense of renewed social purpose in the sport, at the same time as the money in the game has escalated. There are echoes of the social instrument that the Church once viewed football as being.

Mr Horlock points out that Manchester City began life as St Mark’s FC, established in 1880 by Anna Connell, the daughter of a vicar. It is one of six current top-flight clubs with their origins in church-run football teams, often set up with humanitarian goals at heart. “Connell saw it as a way of meeting socioeconomic needs . . . providing men with constructive leisure activities to combat the street fighting and rampant drinking that was taking place, and the impact that had on families and the area. It was absolutely driven by her faith.”

 

Linvoy Primus

FOOTBALL today is unrecognisably clean-living compared with the behaviour that concerned Connell, or even the culture of heavy drinking and sex which used to dominate football in the 1980s and ‘90s. England’s Declan Rice and Jadon Sancho admitted before the Euro 2020 championship that neither of them had ever drunk a beer, but might consider it if they won the tournament.

Mr Saka does not drink at all, and lives at home with his family, who still remind him to get an early night before big games. The fine-tuning of diet and physical conditioning, now an entire industry, has rendered the game less at odds with religious values — although The Athletics 2020 profile of the Bristol City midfielder James Morton still opened by remarking hat “alcohol and bad language aren’t really [Morton’s] thing”, and noting that this stemmed from his Christian faith.

Publicly at least, there is also less emphasis on sex than there was. A decade ago, the wives and girlfriends — “WAGs” — of the England squad were as much part of the picture as the players themselves. Today, most fans would struggle to name the partners of any of the current team.

This is not just about a change in drinking habits or media interest, but part of a deliberate attempt to make English football a healthier environment for young players. In 2011, the EPL introduced the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) with the aim of strengthening the development of youth players and fostering a more integrated approach, both on and off the pitch. The increased importance of the academy system is a fruit of this, as is the much acclaimed leadership of Gareth Southgate (Podcast, 8 July).

The general director of Christians in Sport, Graham Daniels, himself a former player, says that the increased cultural openness about faith in football is reflective of this more holistic approach developed by the Football Association as a result of the EPPP. The game is becoming a healthier place for young, Christian players because it has become a healthier place for young players.

“The determination to break the cultural moulds in which football had been formed for generations has created the kind of young men we see now being both fêted and attacked in the newspapers for professing their faith and feeling it’s their responsibility to transform the culture around them.”

This is bolstered by the fact that players who blazed a trail in being open about their faith a generation ago are now in positions of leadership in the game, whether as coaches or mentors. Among them, the Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has spoken publicly about how his Christianity shapes his perspective on football, in both victory and defeat. “I’m a Christian. The problem [with that] is that I think other people can have success and it’s not all about me.” In 2016, he was named as a Reformationsbotschafter: a public ambassador for the Lutheran Church in his native Germany.

In a less formal way, for Christian players to honour God in the whole of their lives now encompasses their online presence, too. Social media and “influencer” culture blur the personal-private divide, offering greater access to aspects of public figures’ lives which were not broadcast previously.

When the Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker baptised his teammate and fellow Brazilian Roberto Firmino in the swimming pool at his home, he posted about the occasion on social media, offering fans an insight into contemporary Brazilian Evangelicalism as well as team dynamics and beliefs.

The chaplain to Northampton Town FC, the Revd Haydon Spenceley, says that social media have changed the way in which the public relate to players, making them more aware of what is important to the players away from the pitch.

“I think faith has always had a role, but we are more aware of people’s lives now than we used to be, and more aware of what makes them tick. Previous generations didn’t have social-media bios where they had to sum up in a sentence their priorities, their partners, or their pets.”

Mr Saka’s profile on Instagram states “God’s Child”, while Daniel Sturridge’s reads “To God be the glory”. Other players include references to Bible verses, or a cross emoji. Instagram biographies may seem like trivialities, but, given a limited number of characters in which to express what defines them, it is significant that many footballers choose to include faith here.

 

The general director of Christians in Sport, Graham Daniels

ALTHOUGH the culture has changed, the world of football is not a utopia. The racist abuse directed at players in the aftermath of Euro 2020 was a reminder of that (News, 16 July). Even at the highest level, careers can be made or destroyed by managers’ preferences or physical injuries, and the pay cannot always compensate for the emotional toll.

Professional football is a more high-pressured environment than ever. Mr Baker says that it is easy for fans to lose sight of the fact that players are humans, too: “We forget these young men . . . are the same as everyone else.

“They’re very good at football and they’ve committed and sacrificed their lives towards that. But they’re still dads, they’re still husbands, they’re still sons with parents who get ill and grandparents who die.”

While the growth of faith in football is evident in the men’s game, it has yet to spread to the women’s game. There are only a few Women’s Super League (WSL) players who have spoken openly about their Christianity, among them the former England international Eni Aluko, and the Manchester City and Canada forward Janine Beckie. For women’s chaplains, it is the norm not to have any players in their squad with a personal faith.

Although there is increasingly more money and professional status involved, professional women’s football is precarious, and short-term contracts are standard. It also remains far more monochrome. Of the 72 women who have received England caps since 2010, only 14 are black.

AlamyJanine Becky celebrates scoring a goal for Canada against Chile during a match at the Olympic Games last month

This suggests a general lack of diversity among female footballers, which goes some way to explaining the comparative lack of overt religious faith. But the flipside of this is that women’s football is far more accepting when it comes to sexuality.

Mr Primus’s daughter Atlanta currently plays professionally for London City Lionesses in the second tier of English women’s football. He thinks that her position as a practising Christian in the women’s game is equivalent to where the men’s game was when he came to faith in 2001.

 

Dr Delroy Hall

PLAYERS making the sign of the cross as they run on to the pitch, or pointing to the sky in goal celebrations, are a fairly common sight. As Mr Hall notes, “Where else would an audience of 30,000 watch someone pray?” But what do they ask God for at 2.59 p.m. on a Saturday?

Prayers for perspective, protection against injury, and a performance that honours God all feature prominently in the list of intercessions that players and chaplains will admit to offering. During his time at Aston Villa, the Belgian striker Christian Benteke was quoted as saying that he prayed for God’s protection on other players, including the opposition: “Before each match, I pray to him to make sure that nothing bad happens to all 22 players on the pitch. I ask for him to look after everyone.”

Tempting though it may be, the idea of praying for three points is a non-starter. As Mr Baker says, it is a theological minefield to credit a sporting victory to prayer. “At most games now, there’s a chaplain for both sides; so it’s a nonsense to pray for a win. Do you have a pray-off in the centre circle before kick-off? Who’s got the more powerful prayers? It makes a mockery of the whole thing.”

The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, is the Church of England’s lead bishop for sport and an enthusiastic Manchester United supporter. She believes that if prayer is about our relationship with God, who is interested in every part of life, then it makes sense, as fans, to pray about football.

“I don’t have an understanding of prayer as being like putting your lucky socks on. I don’t pray for my team to win because that’s what I think God is going to do. I pray about wanting my team to win because that’s what I want, and I think God is interested in what I’m interested in,” she says.

Football is a microcosm of the contradictions and nuances that come with prayer. One chaplain spoke about the challenge of unanswered prayer in the context of promising to pray for players whose injuries turned out to be more long-term than expected. Another told the story of being introduced on the first day of training after the club had been relegated as “the rev who was praying for us last season and it didn’t f***ing work”.

Bishop Lane also recognises that praying for sporting outcomes is a complicated emotional and theological matter. Asked by presenters on Radio 5 Live to offer a prayer before England’s Euros final, she declined to pray for victory, but, rather, prayed for the common good to prevail.

“I prayed that our desire to win would not overcome our common humanity, and that we would be marked by generosity. . . In a way, we might say that that prayer was not answered, because the racist abuse of a small but visible number of people articulated was absolutely contrary to that, and there was an element of our loss in which humanity lost.

“For me, that opened up a space for me to be able to talk about what we’re doing when we pray, and our own responsibility in co-operating with God in the answering of prayer.”

“God’s Footballer”, Bragg wrote, knew that “beyond the sport lies the spiritual.” The two now appear less sharply differentiated, even if, in the football world, the profession of faith is not a simple matter. For some of today’s players, however, there is a further aspect. It is their belief in the spiritual which moves them to make an impact on the world beyond the sport.


Hannah Rich is senior researcher at Theos.

www.theosthinktank.co.uk

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