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10 June 2016

Euro 2016 - a chance to unite?

Euro 2016 - a chance to unite?

Pete Nicholas works for Christians in Sport, a Christian charity working to reach the world of sport for Jesus. They have produced a Sports Mission Pack with a wealth of resources to help you reach out to sportspeople in your local area throughout the summer.

It is an odd backdrop to the Euros 2016 football tournament that we are currently debating the EU referendum. For one thing the newspapers that we are so used to seeing filled with Rooney's metatarsal or hyping up the next England star – only to knock them down a few weeks into the tournament – have been strangely quiet about the Euros.

But perhaps more significantly as Europe 'comes together' in a celebration of the beautiful game, our continent feels divided.

It is not just the rhetoric of the referendum debates; there are other significant issues driving wedges between us across Europe: economic stagnation and austerity, the migrant crisis, the impact of austerity, the rise of extreme left wing and right-wing politics, and the real and present danger of terrorism. Europe is under strain.

Perhaps then the Euros are just what we need. Not only a healthy distraction, but also perhaps a chance for us to unite around sport. Nelson Mandela's often quoted mantra seems to hold out some hope: "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.

"Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination."

We read the words and remember the picture of Mandela standing next to Francois Pienaar, the Springbok captain, the nation of South Africa celebrating the 1995 Rugby World Cup and we start to believe.

But sport, as with life, has a nasty habit of bursting our idealistic balloons.

Can sport be a uniting influence when it is so divided itself with FIFA in disarray after successive scandals? What about the racism that still exists in football despite attempts to 'kick it out'? Did sport unite South Africa? The 1995 Rugby World Cup was a great event, but 20 years on, despite all of Mandela's considerable efforts, the social divisions remain.

The question of what can unite us is a live issue. Sport has an unparalleled ability to gather people together, but bringing people together is not the same as uniting people. That requires more than just the power to gather, it requires the power to change.

When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in Ephesus he was also writing to a multicultural, but very segregated society. But he held out hope for a radical unity amidst the diversity. A unity not brought about by sport but by the one who "destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility", the one whose purpose was to "make peace" by creating "in himself one new humanity… and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross" (Ephesians 2:14-16).

Sport is great and perhaps during the Euros we will put aside our differences, recognise the goodwill that exists between European nations (whether we are inside the EU or not) and come together to celebrate the game we love. But deep down we know that unity is a harder, more resistant virtue to cultivate. If it is unity we want then we will need more than a month-long tournament and the hope that England might finally realise their potential.

We will need something with the power to change: the reconciling, peace-making, uniting power of the gospel.

As a member of the Evangelical Alliance, Christians in Sport is one of 600 organisations supported by the Alliance. We facilitate members' initiatives and campaigns and offer support to increase their impact and provide training for organisations on how to engage with the local government and media.

If you would like to become a member of the Evangelical Alliance as an organisation, church or individual, you can find out more here.

Image: CC