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Paul Vallely: Football needs theology, not just tactics

14 January 2022

Clubs need to recover the spirit of their ecclesiastical roots, argues Paul Vallely

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Cristiano Ronaldo during a Premier League match between Manchester United and Wolves at Old Trafford, earlier this month

Cristiano Ronaldo during a Premier League match between Manchester United and Wolves at Old Trafford, earlier this month

READERS who are not interested in football, please bear with me. It may seem as though I am going to write about Manchester United, but my subject really is the theology of the individual versus the theology of the community. At least, that’s the idea.

In recent decades, it has become a commonplace to compare football to religion. Commentators routinely resort to clichés about ritual, symbol, denominational allegiance, and a capacity to inspire fervour and awe. But the links between football and religion are more historical and more real.

In the early days, clerics were far from enthusiastic. One 12th-century monk described as “undignified and worthless” a game “in which young men . . . propel a huge ball not by throwing it into the air, but by striking and rolling it along the ground, and that not with their hands but with their feet”. But modern football has its roots in clubs, many of which were founded by churches in the Victorian era.

After the 1850 Factory Act determined that all work must stop at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, churchmen began to worry about what the working classes, unaccustomed as they were to recreational activity, would do with their new free time. Fearing the lure of the demon drink, many urban missionaries, who had played football in their public schools, set up soccer teams. Robust physical activities, they believed, would bring strength and health, since, as one enthusiast for this muscular Christianity opined, doubtless finding support in the letters of St Paul, “the laws of physical well-being are the laws of God.”

Thus, St Domingo’s, in Liverpool, gave birth to Everton FC. The Villa Cross Wesleyan Church, in Birmingham, became Aston Villa. Christ Church, in Bolton, spawned Bolton Wanderers. St Andrew’s Sunday School in West Kensington became Fulham FC. In the 1870s and 1880s, thousands of teams were founded by churches.

Which brings me to my team. Since the retirement of the messianic Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, Manchester United have undergone what sports reporters like to call “mixed fortunes”. Various managers proved unsuccessful until a former player, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, was put in charge on a caretaker basis and unexpectedly revived the squad by rebuilding its team spirit.

Sadly, this was shattered at the end of last year by the return of a player widely regarded as the greatest modern footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo. For all his star qualities, this footballing prima donna has proved a divisive figure. Although currently the club’s top goal scorer, he has corroded the team spirit that Mr Solskjær had built among the players.

Mr Solskjær was eventually sacked because of his unsophisticated on-field tactics. But his replacement, Ralf Rangnick, widely regarded as one of the game’s master tacticians, has found that such skills are no substitute for a deficiency of common purpose and mutual commitment in the minds of his players.

It is, perhaps, apt that a game often celebrated for its deep roots in community life has foundered because there is no sense of community on the pitch. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that what my team currently requires is a return to Victorian football’s ecclesiastical inheritance. What Man Utd needs is not simply better tactics, but also a better theology.

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