Passion, faith and the community’s heartbeat: how football goes hand in hand with Christianity

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Bristol Churches Football
Bristol Churches Football League. Image credit: Diocese of Bristol

It is often said that football is like a religion in Britain, inspiring passion, belief and devotion that most spiritual leaders could only dream of.

Now an initiative organised by the Football Association hopes to show that a dedication to the sport can work hand in hand with faith groups to enhance the game’s reputation — on and off the pitch.

The FA’s Faith and Football programme will see special events take place with other faith communities in the coming months. As part of the initiative, it held an online webinar with the Religion Media Centre to discuss the links between football and Christianity.

The FA says the project aims to make the game truly inclusive. Arran Williams, diversity and inclusion manager at the FA, told the webinar that other upcoming events include an Iftar and call to prayer at Wembley stadium and events for Vaisakhi in the West Midlands.

Williams, a referee and former coach, said: “It’s about making sure people all around the country and of all faiths and denominations feel welcome in football.”

While the influence of faith on football has sometimes been seen as divisive, many of the country’s clubs emerged from church groups, according to Peter Lupson, author of Thank God for Football Published in 2006, his book charts the religious roots of many big clubs, among them Aston Villa and Barnsley.

He said the book stemmed from his own efforts to set up a church team in Merseyside. “A lot of the boys were being ridiculed for playing for a church club and many left because they couldn’t cope with those comments,” he added. “So, I wrote Thank God for Football to tell the boys in the club, ‘look, you’re not freaks, you’re part of a rich tradition’.

“I found that something like a quarter of all clubs that have played in English football over the past five years have a close connection with the church.”

Mr Lupson explained that values such as fair play and self-control were key to both Christianity and football when the sport first emerged. He cited amateur club Corinthian FC, which was founded on the basis of fair play and moral values. The team, he said, historically never argued with the referee or took part in matches involving cash prizes.

He added: “The Corinthians refused to take penalties because they believed that if you take a penalty, you accept that cheating is part of football.”

Retired professional footballer Linvoy Primus, who played for Portsmouth, Reading and Charlton Athletic, saw a change in his career after he converted to Christianity. “Playing football was my dream, but at 27 or 28 I realised it wasn’t giving me everything I hoped it would give me,” he said.

Things changed when he found God. “Football became the gift that I was given rather than the job that I do.” He introduced a prayer group while at Portsmouth.

“If you bring anything different into the dressing room you are going to get a bit of stick,” he recalled. “But after about four or five weeks some of the players giving a bit of stick saw players coming in [to the prayer group] and getting into the team and thought if he’s going to get in … I might give it a go.”

Mr Primus believes the Christian message of ‘love thy neighbour’ can help to stamp out racism in the stands. “How about finding out about that person next to you and understanding that shouting out racist terms or to discriminate isn’t right?”

Since retiring, Mr Primus has become heavily involved in Christian charity work and raised £100,000 walking the Great Wall of China in aid of the charity Faith & Football. 

Other Christian footballers who harness their faith as a power for good include poverty campaigner and Manchester United star Marcus Rashford, according to Hannah Rich, senior researcher at Theos think tank.

She said: “He has said very publicly that he’s driven by his personal experience of growing up in poverty but also by his faith. It isn’t just for the headlines. There are a lot of other players putting their faith into practice at a local level really quietly, but really brilliantly.”

James Kendall, the FA’s director of Football Development, discussed the overlap between his Christian faith and the beautiful game. The crossover was larger than one might expect, he said, as football clubs were “very often the heartbeat of communities”. He highlighted the huge amount of charitable work grassroots clubs had done to address major social issues, including Covid-19 and the refugee crisis.

“My Christian faith is based on making a difference, of serving that model we have of Jesus during his 33 years on this earth.”

He believes that “Christianity and football align perfectly” and “come together in a wonderful way” through his work. “I feel very fortunate and privileged,” he said. “My faith, my belief, my values underpin what I do.”

Matt Baker has been chaplain at Charlton Athletic since 2000 and is national director for England at Sports Chaplaincy UK. While footballing has a reputation as a glamorous career path, players often struggle to cope with the transition to life in the spotlight, he said.

“When you go on the field you concentrate on the game but there’s so much more going on besides,” he added. A chaplain’s role was best summed as “pastorally proactive and spiritually reactive”.

The Rev Pouya Heidari was a professional footballer in Iran until he converted to Christianity. His work in the church led to him being “blacklisted” and he fled the country for Britain 14 years ago. After settling here he trained for the priesthood and is now a Church of England vicar.

“The church and football complement each other really well,” he told the briefing, saying that he regularly discussed the sport with parishioners of all ages. He still plays and even captains the Archbishop of Canterbury’s football team, which in the coming weeks will compete against teams from The Times, the Vatican and the Swiss Guards.

Becky Clarke plays in goal for Bournemouth Sports Football Club. She believes football and faith are intertwined and said: “Our matches are at two on a Sunday afternoon and often I come straight from church. They are both part of my life equally.”

Catherine Pepinster, a journalist specialising in religious affairs and an avid Brentford fan, said: “You’re not passive when you watch football, you’re not a bystander. You are a participant.”

Comparing that with religious belief, she added: “When you have religious belief, you’re a participant in something, you have those beliefs. Christianity calls upon you to act on those beliefs and, as a football fan, I’m called upon to not just watch but to really get behind the team.”

Strong affiliations in football have sometimes been linked to religious rivalries, but Ms Pepinster hopes such sectarianism is disappearing.

Rabbi Alex Goldberg, who chairs the English FA’s Faith Network and has worked on Kick it Out, the campaign to rid the sport of racism, said greater tolerance would ultimately boost England’s chances on the world stage.

“If we want to win the World Cup, we need to get more young people playing football on the streets, then playing football on the pitch, then playing football up the levels,” he said. “And the only way of doing that is actually working with communities because they have a great organising power.

“So that’s what we’re doing in football, and that’s why we’re having sessions like today … because I think faith alongside football, makes a great community.”

You can watch the entire webinar recorded on Tuesday 12th April 2022 via YouTube below:

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