Adrian Chiles: Faith, fear and blessed talent: the gospel according to football

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The Independent Online

As it's Easter, without wishing to sound like a poor edition of "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4, I thought it might be apt to consider what scripture has to say about sport, especially about football. To this end I found my New English Bible and let it fall open at any page that suited it. Psalm 128: "Happy are all who fear the Lord, who live according to his will. You shall eat the fruit of your own labours, you shall be happy and you shall prosper." Now we know how Jose Mourinho does it: he manages his players like God manages all living things.

As it's Easter, without wishing to sound like a poor edition of "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4, I thought it might be apt to consider what scripture has to say about sport, especially about football. To this end I found my New English Bible and let it fall open at any page that suited it. Psalm 128: "Happy are all who fear the Lord, who live according to his will. You shall eat the fruit of your own labours, you shall be happy and you shall prosper." Now we know how Jose Mourinho does it: he manages his players like God manages all living things.

Next I chance upon Job 38. These words could easily have been uttered by Sir Alex Ferguson in almost any press conference he has ever held: "Who is this whose ignorant words cloud my design in darkness? Brace yourself and stand up like a man; I will ask questions, and you shall answer."

By now, as my Bible next falls open at Jeremiah 51:20, it's getting spooky, like an unseen hand has led me to the very words that Bryan Robson must whisper in Geoff Horsfield's ear before he runs out of the tunnel: "You are my battle-axe, my weapon of war; with you I will break nations in pieces, and with you I will destroy kingdoms." Sven, try it with Emile.

There are plenty of more specific, if allegorical, references to sport such as: "For my part, I run with a clear goal before me; I am like a boxer who does not beat the air..." (I Corinthians 9:26). And I am indebted to West Brom's irrepressible chaplain Ken "The Rev" Hipkiss for some other suggestions. "Have a look at Hebrews 12," he says. "'With all these witnesses to faith around us like a cloud, we must throw off every encumbrance, every sin to which we cling.'"

Not quite sure I'm with you Ken.

"Well throwing off every encumbrance is like getting changed before you run out, isn't it?"

It gets worse (you need a sense of humour to be at West Brom, even if you are the chaplain). "Acts 13:3: 'After they had fasted and preyed they placed their hands on them and he sent them off.' You see," says Ken triumphantly, "even then if you raised your hands there was a red card."

None of this frippery ought to detract from the more serious purpose of Christians in sport. Stuart Weir, of the organisation of the same name, puts it like this: "Sport and our ability to play and enjoy sport is part of God's creation. Sport like everything else has been spoiled by our selfishness, greed, desire to put ourselves first. Sport, like the rest of God's world, needs to be restored to what God intended. Imagine sport played with honesty, integrity and sportsmanship."

To see sport through the prism of Christianity like this is ludicrous to some, but it has always struck me as more ludicrous not to. Interviewed on court after he won the French Open in 1999, Andre Agassi said: "I am truly blessed". Some took this as arrogance; I took it as him simply thanking God for his (arguably) God-given talent - which seemed only polite under the circumstances.

Shortly after that I interviewed Michael Owen. I asked him about the seconds after he scored against Argentina in St-Etienne when he ran towards where he knew his parents were sitting in the stadium. What a wonderful moment. Who do you thank at a moment like that? Baffled, he looked at me somewhat warily and shrugged, "Dunno, myself, my Mum and Dad, I'm not sure."

Graham Daniels, who played in the same Cambridge United side as David Moyes, is general director of Christians in Sport. Colossians 3:23 is one of his favourite passages: "Whatever you are doing put your whole heart into it, as if you were doing it for the Lord and not for men." Graham says that a footballer might think about this "in the middle of a game when you're having 'a mare', or you're flying for that matter. Just think: who's your audience? It's an audience of one, never mind the thousands there. Ask yourself what you are doing; where you got that talent from and who it is for. And I think that's one thought that can really help you cope at the top level."

For footballers wondering about their prospects at the Pearly Gates, he says that if you can be a player and resist the temptations and provocations that go with that, you have really achieved something. But Peter Howitt, author of a great article on football and faith on www.christis.org.uk posts a dark warning: "Just compare the actions of some footballers with the Apostle Paul's list of sinful acts in Galatians 6:19-21".

This is indeed chilling stuff: fornication, impurity and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. It might be harder to get a rich man into heaven than a camel through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24) but a footballer is going to be an even tighter squeeze by the look of it.

I tried, without success, to trace Peter Howitt because I would love to know whom he supports. The passages about Christian faith that he picks out as analogous to the faith a football fan needs are just perfect: "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1). How many of us have shambled home after a game with that thought in our hearts? And then, when we come to explain why we feel how we feel: "Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason for the hope that you have." (I Peter 3:15).

Howitt goes on to argue that "it is one of the world's great hypocrisies that faith in God is condemned as irrational, whilst a football fan is considered sane for supporting an awful team that never reward his or her faith. Thus the difference between the two faiths is that whilst our football team often lets us down, God will always repay our faith."

The second point raises a much bigger question than I can answer but, as the season comes to an end, here is a line that all true fans can mutter to themselves after the whistle blows on their team's last match: "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith" (II Timothy 4:7). Happy Easter.

adrian.chiles@btopenworld.com

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