With God on their side

Glenn Hoddle is not alone in seeking divine intervention to further his ambitions. In football, golf and tennis, devotion is the name of the game.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
GOD may have made the world in only seven days, but even He might find His work cut out over the next few weeks. For in the biggest summer of sport there has ever been, it seems that there won't be a shot saved, a putt holed or an ace served without the great referee in the sky having something to do with it.

Like the so-called utility player - the type who can play in any position depending on the team's needs - God is a versatile fellow who means different things to different people. In fact, the term God is perhaps not quite appropriate in analysing an upsurge of spirituality in sport that has found its most vivid, and some would say disconcerting expression in the England football coach, Glenn Hoddle.

The success of Arsene Wenger, the sophisticated Frenchman who has just led Arsenal to the Premiership and FA Cup double, is a measure of the increasing refinement of management techniques in football. Diet and mental training are now every bit as important as squat jumps and free-kick practice. But Hoddle's controversial espousal of faith-healing as a means to help England win the World Cup has taken sports psychology into an entirely new dimension.

We clearly should not under-estimate the role of Eileen Drewery, the faith-healer brought in by Hoddle to talk to the England players. "It's a very personal thing, but one that works," Hoddle told BBC Radio 5 at the weekend. "She has contributed to our qualifying." Long since described as a born-again Christian but unwilling to refer to himself in such terms, Hoddle also revealed that he believed in reincarnation. "The body is just an overcoat," he said. "Take it away and your spirit goes into another life in the spirit dimension."

It's easy to dismiss this kind of thing as mere crankiness, with worrying if distant overtones of David Icke, the goalkeeper turned cult-leader who announced that he was the son of God. And certainly one fears for Hoddle should England fail at the World Cup and the press use his unorthodox training methods as a stick with which to beat him.

Suspicion of anything new-fangled follows from a conventional strain that is still very much present in sports culture. But with many football clubs now having their own chaplain, the culture is changing, and Hoddle is by no means alone in believing that sport raises questions that can't simply be answered by an extra half-hour's weight-training or a bonding session in the pub.

The sports psychologist John Syer sees religion in sport as an extension of the sort of work he does, mainly in building teamwork. "As a mental trainer, you are working on people's attitudes, and I suppose spirituality is also about attitude. Likewise the experience of being in a good team is spiritual, in that it's the feeling of being part of something that's bigger than you."

The organisation Christians in Sport has grown steadily since it was founded in 1980. It has a mailing list of 10,000, and reports a particular increase in interest among young footballers. It's a trend that director Stuart Weir in part puts down to the pressures of the modern footballer's life. "A 16-year-old might be sweeping out the souvenir shop one season, and the next he's starring in the first team," he said. "How do you cope with that?"

A number of high-profile converts has also helped the cause. Kriss Akabusi's brand of energetic Christianity helped him stand out in the athletics scene of the 1980s, and others followed. "Someone not as strong-willed as Kriss might be a bit reluctant to reveal that they were going to Bible study, but once his beliefs were known it became obvious that it wasn't just something for inadequates," Weir says.

Christians in Sport subsequently built a recruitment drive around a poster on which the slogan, "Who thinks Christianity is for wimps?" was accompanied by a photograph of the mighty rugby union player, and practising Christian, Va'aiga Tuigamala. The athlete Jonathan Edwards and footballer Gavin Peacock are also prominent in the organisation.

Weir is sceptical about faith-healing, while respecting that "if you believe something is helping you, then it very well might". Nor, says Weir, is asking God to intervene on your behalf what sportsmen's beliefs are about - for all the claims made by Tafarel, the Brazilian goalkeeper, that the Almighty has told him which way to dive so that he can save penalties.

"I'm very wary of people who tell you they are successful because God makes them win," Weir said. "The point about Christianity is that it should help you to discover self-value and to keep things in perspective."

Both of which provide handles on sanity in a frenzied, moneyed world of sporting celebrity that has left many a casualty in its wake. Bernhard Langer, the German golfer who is another leading light in Christians in Sport, famously missed a putt that would have won the Ryder Cup a few years ago, an experience that might have destroyed lesser men. He understood that his worth was not expressed in winning or losing golf tournaments. "There has only ever been one perfect human being, and we crucified him," he remarked later. "All I failed to do was put a golf ball in a hole."

Individual sports, with their unremitting emphasis on the self, are full of tales of spiritual quest. There is an abundance of how-to books for aspiring tennis players and golfers, all with their chapters on the inner being. Did not Arthur Ashe meditate his way to the Wimbledon title in 1975? No press conference given by the tennis player Michael Chang passes without reference to the role played in his life by Jesus Christ. And when Andre Agassi was asked how he reconciled reading the Bible with calling an umpire a "f****** bozo", he answered: "That's why I read the Bible."

A new self-help book, The Golfer and Millionaire, by an American called Mark Fisher, is really a parable in which a mediocre golf pro discovers a mentor who teaches him how to banish self-doubt in the form of a bejewelled, Devil-like character who lurks about the green trying to put him off his stroke. The player goes on to win the US Open.

Redemption, of course, is a recurring theme in sport. Although there has been nothing overtly religious about it, the process by which Tony Adams, the Arsenal footballer and one-time alcoholic, has come back from the brink to experience a glorious coda to his career and an evidently deeper meaning to life is surely worthy of the description "born-again".

And when one looks at the endlessly troubled career of Paul Gascoigne, few would dispute his need for pastoral care. In recognising that, Glenn Hoddle has taken a step further than any previous England coach, just as he has by enlisting the services of Ms Drewery. If England come back from France as World Cup winners, her appointments book will be very full indeed.

the god squad

Michael Chang, US tennis player (above). Praises God for all of his success. Critics say his belief turned him from an athlete with average gifts into a top-class player. Chang's tennis philosophy: "I go out and play and everything else is in God's hands."

Tom Lehman, US golfer and 1996 British Open winner. The born-again Christian from Minnesota prays daily and says he drew strength from God as he faced money troubles, a confidence crisis and a cancer scare. Thanked God in his Open victory speech.

Jonah Lomu, New Zealand rugby union player (below). The16-stone giant they call "The Whale" is a devout Christian who doesn't drink or smoke and is described as shy and "God-loving" by team-mates.

Tessa Sanderson, Olympic champion javelin-thrower (above). The veteran of six Games inherited her faith from her devout mother. Tessa, whose athletics career was dogged by injury, said before her final Olympics in Atlanta in 1996: "Many a time I've prayed to God for things to come right. For me it has happened that way. But I have never lost my faith."

Gavin Peacock, captain of Queen's Park Rangers. Nicknamed "The Rev" in the dressing room. Co-wrote a book called Never Walk Alone, with former Middlesbrough winger Alan Comfort, who is now a vicar in Essex.

Jonathan Edwards, World Champion triple-jumper (below). A life-long Christian and son of a vicar who is studying for a theology degree.

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