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10 February 2012

The beautiful game

The beautiful game

As Capello moves out and the Redknapp looks set to move into the hot seat of English football, our national game has never been so vilified. Greed, racism, thuggery and corruption now seem to be the hallmarks of what is often described as 'the beautiful game'.

The tragic events in Port Said last week, where dozens were killed and many more injured following a football match between al-Masry and al-Ahly, remind us there is nothing so good that cannot be used for evil.

There's no 'I' in team, as the old saying puts it. You don't have to play or even support a team to recognise that sport is a fundamental human good, building character as well as physique. Or at least that's what it can do.

Even allowing for the particular, politicised circumstances of the Port Said match, rarely does a month go by without some sporting scandal - whether bungs or abuse, vice or fixes - sweeping the back pages. Sport can breed selfishness, arrogance and, when married to big money, greed. Worse, it can bring out the vilest kind of aggressive tribalism that lies dormant within us all.

Small wonder that people talk of football as if it were a religion. Or that St Paul borrowed metaphors from the stadium just as he did from the law courts and the marketplace.

Indeed the parallels are uncanny. Contemporary religious practice may not pay so much attention to the body, but that is largely because we have dematerialised Christianity. Were we still living in an age of pilgrimage, fasting and physical devotion we might think differently.

The spiritual parallels are clearer. Christ's yoke becomes in Paul's hands "strict training", by means of which Christians take hold of "a crown that will last forever". So many of the virtues that dot the pages of the New Testament - endurance, self-control, honesty, perseverance -are precisely those you need in a good sporting life.

But there is a darker parallel too. History is littered with the corpses of those whom Christians deemed to have played for the wrong team; indeed, to have played for the right team in the wrong way. There is nothing so unifying and celebratory in a game that cannot be turned to violence in the hands of its fans. When the anti-God squad fire off the accusation that religion divides and even kills, they have good evidence on which to draw.

But - and here is the crucial point - just as the solution to corrupt officials, greedy players or violent fans is not to banish sport altogether, but to reform the game, so the cure for bad Christianity, is not no Christianity. It's real Christianity.


Nick Spencer, Theos