IT IS not often that sport dominates newspapers’ front and the back pages, but, over the past few weeks, the fiasco over the European Super League (ESL) has made headlines around the world.
Twelve of the biggest football clubs in Europe decided that they wanted to start a new midweek league that would net them hundreds of millions of pounds — a league from which they could never be relegated, and in which they would hold all the power. In short, it was a decision by a small group of billionaire owners, serving their self-interest. It would have taken greed in football to a new level.
The announcement on 18 April of the ESL was opposed vociferously by fans, players, and pundits. Within three days of the announcement, and after several clubs had pulled out of the scheme, the ESL was cancelled. Since then, many fans — including fans of Arsenal and Manchester United — have staged protests against the owners of their clubs.
THE European Super League story has highlighted facts about our society. One is how much a story about football could overshadow stories of true injustice. That, to nobody’s surprise, a group of billionaires want more money is a bigger talking point than the injustices that continue to thrive in football.
Greed in football is not new. The sport has long since departed from its roots when clubs were founded on principles of community, social inclusion, and solidarity. Much could be said, and has been said, about the transformation of the beautiful game into the bountiful game.
Consider racism, too. It is an incontestable part of football’s reality. But, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd (News, 5 June 2020), footballers across the UK and Europe have, as a demonstration of solidarity with Black Lives Matter, taken the knee before kick-off.
It is great that football players are willing to draw attention to racism in football and beyond, but some players have begun to challenge this. The Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha has said that he will no longer take the knee, because it has not resulted in enough action by the Football Association against racism. “Unless action is going to happen, I don’t want to hear about it,” he said. Those of us who want football to be the beautiful game must demand action and support those who are brave enough to speak out.
Football, though, is a microcosm of wider society. If we look closer to home, there are still systemic issues in the Church, as highlighted by the BBC’s Panorama: Is the Church racist? (News, 23 April), and the report by the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce, From Lament to Action (News, 23 April). The reality of racism in the Church is not new or surprising, but it is heartbreaking: the fact that the rot of racism has taken hold in institutions that supposedly reveal and build the Kingdom of God.
The Church should provide the place of the now and the not yet: the presence of the Kingdom in the moment, as well as the movement of people journeying with God to bring peace and justice to our world. As the people of God, we should be standing with the oppressed, championing justice, and seeking peace. We cannot afford to be silent.
AS MUCH as the story of the ESL revealed a collective, callous indifference to injustice, it also gives cause for hope.
Billionaires are powerful. People do not often say no to them, and they are used to getting what they want, when they want it. Much of the coverage of the ESL story was fatalistic: there was no way to challenge this; the club owners were too rich and powerful for ordinary fans to stop them. But stop them they did. In the face of public outrage and organised protest, the clubs withdrew. The league has unravelled.
The story of the ESL should be a modern parable for society and for the Church, in particular. When people overcome their tribalism, work together for a common cause, and start to see themselves not as isolated individuals but as a collective movement, they can achieve the seemingly impossible.
The great thing about this reminder of the strength of people power is that the Church is people, too. The Church, as a movement, can practise the presence of God now, and join in bringing about the Kingdom.
It is easy to feel powerless and fatalistic in the face of the climate crisis, hundreds of years of racism, poverty, and much more. But the story of the ESL reminds us that, together, Christians are the people of God; together, they are powerful. Football is beautiful when we remember its origins and purpose. The Church is beautiful when it remembers its origins and purpose.
Together, Christians’ faith, hope, and determination to see peace and justice — to see the Kingdom of God — is why, if they mobilise, their faith can move mountains.
Josh Grear works in the campaigns and youth team at Christian Aid. To find out more about Christian Aid’s 2021 Climate Justice campaign, visit: www.christianaid.org.uk/campaigns