John Buckeridge explores the Christian roots of many football clubs
On a warm May day two years ago I sent my wife this short text: ‘I’m in heaven!’ I was at Wembley stadium and the final whistle had just blown at the FA Cup Final to mark the victory of Portsmouth – the football club I have supported since I was a boy. After years of watching Pompey play mediocre football in lower leagues, we were in the Premiership and had won one of the most famous trophies in the world.
Two seasons on and Portsmouth FC’s story has changed somewhat with massive debts and relegation, although against the odds, we still made the FA Cup final once more. Millions will be watching the final stages of football’s World Cup this month in South Africa. Who knows whether Rooney will be fit and England will repeat their triumph of 1966, but you can be sure that I, along with millions of others, will be glued to a TV cheering them on.
The roots of the modern game were established in the late 1800s with Christians at the heart of it. Many church leaders wanted to do something positive to counteract the problem of drunkenness on Saturday afternoons. Having completed their five and a half day working week, many men went straight to the pub to relax. Arriving home drunk that evening domestic violence was commonplace.
Churches responded by founding football clubs to divert men from drunken excess. Many clubs, such as Bolton Wanderers, Everton and Birmingham City, have gone on to become household names. Playing or watching football diverted huge numbers of men from negative and destructive pastimes. More of their money ended up in the family purse, while their wives didn’t have to dodge a drunken fist. Launching football clubs was one of several successful so-called ‘muscular Christian’ strategies designed to counteract societal ills – another being Sunday Schools run to counter illiteracy. I hope you enjoy reading Dave Roberts’ fascinating exploration of the Christian roots of football.
Today the impact of satellite TV has injected multi-millions into the top European football leagues, leaving many fans in the UK alienated from the foreign owned debt ridden clubs they have supported all their life. Football has become a showcase of excess – many footballers and their wives are notorious for their conspicuous consumption. But at grassroots level football is still in good health. Children’s and youth leagues abound worldwide. The number of girls who play football rises each year. The Christian presence in football today is still strong – many pro clubs have chaplains, groups such as Ambassadors in Sport and Kick London do great work, and individual Christian players often have a significant impact – like Linvoy Primus who launched an Alpha group for players and staff at my club Pompey.
A century on from those pioneering Christians who responded to the evils blighting their society by launching football clubs, alcohol remains a huge problem in the UK, and unemployment and domestic violence are still are a scourge. These, along with new problems such as materialism, low self-esteem and obesity, require us to be open to the creative Holy Spirit. It is not enough to snipe from the sidelines. We must take inspiration from our Christian ancestors, roll up our sleeves and get stuck in.