The religion of sport

Football folk make the kind of throwaway remarks that would be alarming coming from anyone else. “Some people think football is a matter of life and death,” Bill Shankly, the late Liverpool coach, once said. “I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

When, at the Africa Cup of Nations, I saw the Nigerian team in a huddle and engaged in fervent prayer before and during games, I remembered Shankly.
But I also wondered why God was being dragged into what is a manly pastime that more than half of the world’s population—mostly women—find mildly interesting.

Seeing the seriousness with which they prayed, one would be forgiven for thinking they were praying for peace in the Middle East. Those who don’t follow football’s somewhat warped logic would be aghast; after all, is it not just a game?

Noting the Nigerians’ progress in the tournament, perhaps God had indeed intervened, as they went as far as the quarterfinals on the back of a particularly insipid performance.

To those who get this peculiar football logic, words describing football fans as the “faithful” begin to make sense. Or describing former Italian football maestro Roberto Baggio’s ponytail as the Divine Ponytail.

It’s the same logic that justifies simply calling former Manchester United midfielder Eric Cantona “god”. It’s not as sacrilegious as it sounds because King David (Psalm 82:6) in a moment of insight, perhaps after having a vision in which he saw football’s glorious future, declared that “you are gods, you are all sons of the Most High”.

Shankly so believed the logic of his outrageous statement that he felt compelled to say the aphorism in a slightly different form: “Football is a matter of life and death, except more important.”

Such dross, one wants to say, only to be checked by seeing how fans routinely die at football games.

Fans dying for football was unthinkable a few decades ago. Admitting that you supported football was like saying you followed wrestling, as Nick Hornby, author of Fever Pitch, a famous football book, succinctly puts it. “You have to remember that the public perception of football for most of the Eighties was summed up by a Sunday Times article, which claimed that it was ‘a slum sport for slum people’,” he wrote.

Now a whole institution, the Catholic Church, has made its entry into the slums.

The Vatican’s secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a football fan, envisages a Catholic team that one day plays in the Serie A. Talent shouldn’t be a problem, as the church’s seminaries and youth clubs abound with talented footballers, among them Brazilians. And we are not talking about that Brazilian, AC Milan striker Ricardo Kaka, who occasionally wears a T-shirt under his Milan shirt that evangelically declares that “I belong to Jesus”. Perhaps when players belong to Jesus, corruption and cheating may be a thing of the past.

This desire to have a clean team has not been merely speculative, as the Italian Bishop’s Conference now has a controlling stake in AC Ancona, a team in Italy’s third division. Once in Serie A, the club was heavily implicated in the bribery scandals that rocked Italian football in 2006.

The Vatican was going to introduce an ethical code that punishes Ancona’s players for foul play. Challenging the notorious hooligan element entrenched in Italian football, Ancona’s fans will be forbidden from shouting abuse at opponents’ teams and unfurling offensive banners and flags.

In Scotland, the Glasgow Old Firm derby—Rangers versus Celtic—is a proxy war for the Irish political war between Protestants and Catholics. Priests belonging to the different denominations have been known to offer prayers during mass asking for divine intervention that they beat the other side.

But flying your faith flag is not without its perils, as AmaZulu, a football team that once played in Zimbabwe’s Premier League, can testify to.

AmaZulu—who are Sundowns’ Esrom Nyandoro’s former club—were relegated for refusing to play on Saturdays as its owner, Delma Lupepe, is a devout Seventh Day Adventist.

Years after his team was relegated, he says he won’t “lose sight of our Christian values for any reason. Perhaps our reward for all the investment is not here on Earth.”

Speaking of earthly matters, Taribo West, a former Nigerian defender who played for Derby County, Auxerre and Inter Milan, has a church that is open to the “wretched of the earth”—Milan’s homeless.

When he was at English Premier League club Derby County, it was accepted that he was not expected to play on Sundays, as he would be preaching at his Milan church.

If Portsmouth’s Nwankwo Kanu still lived and played in Milan, as he once did, perhaps he would probably also attend compatriot Taribo’s church.

He is a born-again Christian who says he owes his career to God’s miraculous ways. He was diagnosed with a potentially career-ending heart ailment in the late 1990s which, he says, was healed by prayer and his belief in God. And when, in 2006, he had a remarkable goal-scoring streak, he attributed it to his faith in God. “Before each game we get together and pray. And when we pray I keep scoring,” he testified.

If footballers are quick to break into prayer and song when things go their way, they are equally quick to question God’s footballing prowess. Cantona, following Manchester United great George Best’s death, mused rather loudly that “after his first training session in heaven, George Best, from his favourite right wing, turned the head of God who was filling in at left-back. I would love for him to save me a place in his team—George Best that is, not God.”

You would want to take Cantona seriously but, in one moment, he admitted that we shouldn’t take what he says literally. “I might have said that, but on the whole I talk a lot of rubbish,” he said, dismissing yet another of his crazy statements.

What’s not rubbish, though, is that the long-suffering followers of Moroka Swallows, the most faithful believers of the Messiah to come, will without fail sing the traditional gospel song Jwale ke nako ya ho rapela. Kaofela Morena orethuse refumane mahlohonolo (It’s time to pray, Lord. Help us all and bring us luck).

Perhaps Shankly was speaking for sports in general when he said the whole thing was more important than life or death.

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