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27 June 2014

Suarez, England & World Cup glory

Suarez, England & World Cup glory

Wikimedia Commons: Jikatu. Uruguay 2 England 1

Glory! Outside church, you only normally hear people use the word 'glory' when talking or singing about football. I love football, but I love God much more. I'm fascinated and uneasy by the price I seem prepared to pay for a tiny share in World Cup glory.

Others struggle too. Luis Suarez' bite looked an open and shut case of the inglorious. Yet Uruguay manager, Oscar Tabarez said: "This is a football World Cup, not about cheap morality. If we believe people are attacking him, then we're going to defend him."

At the last World Cup, Suarez saved his team by handling the ball on the goal line. Looking back this year, he said: "I didn't do anything wrong. I sacrificed playing in a World cup semi-final for my team-mates to have a chance to play in that game."

Wayne Rooney, whose England side were knocked out by two Suarez goals, reflected: "Look at teams who have won the tournament over previous years and you can see that nastiness in them. I think we need to get that in us. I got kicked 10 times and I don't think there was a yellow card given to an opponent. Maybe we're too honest, as a team. I want to win the game."

Is it better to be England out or Uruguay through? My childhood was football. My memories are tied to football seasons, retired players' names and big results. So my heart, like Wayne Rooney's, says I'd rather be in Uruguayan boots, because I'm desperate for England to win.

But I know that winning at all costs is wrong. So, like Tabarez, Suarez, and Rooney, I cloak the desire to win in the language of morality: "I am defending my player… I sacrificed for my team…..I was kicked 10 times." We are brilliant at finding justifications for what we know to be indefensible. It is when we care most for glory that our powers of moral self-deception are at their strongest. When we most want glory, we have to watch ourselves closest.

A football that is all about the three points and game management isn't worth watching. Football is more than results. If Peter Reid had brought down Maradona on the halfway line in 1986, he'd have denied the world one of the greatest ever goals. Should he have 'taken a yellow'?

If winning itself is the only value, then why not save time and just run penalty shoot-outs? Or get the latest celebrity octopus to pick a flag? Winning at football is satisfying because we love the game –the precision of a long pass, a delicate lob, a curling shot into the top corner, the bruised centre half soldiering on, the dribbles and tricks of a brilliant winger.

It's just a game, but we invest it with meaning, and it shapes us. Like any activity we care about, it moulds us morally. The single biggest topic of conversation on our planet is the World Cup. The loss we feel when our national team is knocked out is genuine. We learn lessons about conduct from seeing who gets rewards. Football reveals something in us. We want a piece of glory. We want it enough to sing, to shout, and sometimes to cry.

So before we embrace win-at-all-costs, we need to pause and ask: what are we glorifying? We can easily lose sight of what we love in the desire to grab it. Jesus warned us about these moments of yearning, and our tragic loss of perspective. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet lose his soul?

Neill Harvey-Smith is director of communications for the Diocese of Lichfield, Church of England