Pre-match prayer meetings, Alpha and community projects are transforming Portsmouth FC. Premiership soccer star Linvoy Primus tells Emma John how faith, football and fame mix. There’s something strange happening at Portsmouth Football Club, and it’s so extraordinary that everyone in the Premiership – players, fans, managers – knows about it. Pub conversation about Pompey usually revolves around manager Harry Redknapp’s latest signing. Now there’s a new topic, and it’s prayer.

A few months ago, a couple of Christians in the Portsmouth team decided to pray together before each game, huddled in the club’s laundry room. Their numbers grew, and now the Laundry Room Prayer Huddle is general knowledge across the country. It has been mentioned in match reports in almost every single national newspaper. And it hasn’t hurt that in that time, Portsmouth’s performances have lifted them into the top half of the Premiership. Of course, says Portsmouth defender Linvoy Primus, they don’t pray for a victory. “It would be nice if we could pray for a win and God guaranteed it but that’s not the way it works,” he smiles. “We just want to give back to Him the ability he’s given us and ask that He’ll use it to glorify him.”

Sporting glory has become one of the most valuable commodities on the planet. Billion-dollar businesses are sustained by the never-ending global demand for sporting competition. The media obsesses over one man’s ability to kick a football through a pair of posts, or one woman’s ability to hit a tennis ball past her opponent. We make sportsmen and women the darlings of our aspirational culture, feting them with money and fame until their skills themselves become irrelevant, subsumed by their sponsorship deals and their celebrity. In such a world, where do Christians fit?

Soccer saintLinvoy Primus was 26 when he was bought by Portsmouth, then struggling to stay in the second tier of English football, for a quarter of a million pounds. Primus had spent the previous eight years playing in the lower leagues for Charlton, Barnet and Reading. Both his footballing career and his personal life were unfulfilled. Married, but with problems at home, Primus and his wife were struggling to find genuine friends. Being a footballer, it seemed, made people keen for a piece of him and he didn’t know who he could trust. “In my head, in my heart, there was turmoil,” says Primus. “People said I had it together – I had a lovely wife, two children. I’d think, ‘Yeah, it looks good from the outside but you don’t know what’s going on inside.’ I worried about what was going to happen at the end of my playing contract; that stopped me enjoying the football. I wanted to play well in every game, but I was being lied to by the enemy who told me I was never good enough.”

A couple of his wife’s friends invited Primus and the family to a local service and introduced them to the church. And when Primus decided to commit to Jesus, it didn’t go down well at work. “When I’d first come to the club I wasn’t a Christian, so all the guys knew about me, they knew the way I was. When I first told them I’d found God I got a lot of stick and grief over it. “There was one other Christian player – Darren Moore – and they assumed he had a lot to do with it. Actually, he hadn’t at all.” The first few months were the hardest. “I had believed up until that point that I wasn’t a bad person. So when I explained to the guys about Jesus, they knew what was going on in my family life, about our problems. And no, I didn’t change dramatically, but I knew something had changed in my heart.” Six months later the situation began to ease and gradually his teammates started turning to him. “Guys started asking for prayer – they wouldn’t ask outright, only on the quiet, for members of their family,” he remembers.

With former player Mick Mellows, Primus prayed for more Christians to come to the club and over the next three years the pair began to see God answering their prayers. Their core of Christian players and staff grew to 13 – they were even able to run an Alpha course. Primus had become a vital member of the side, helping Pompey to win promotion to the Premiership in 2003. By then he was a favourite with the fans who voted him their player of the year. He also scooped the Professional Football Association’s divisional player of the year award – a major honour.

“In general our faith has become respected; no one frowns on us or laughs at us, or considers us a cult. There’s been a really obvious spiritual turnaround at the club. It’s amazing to think that a year ago we wouldn’t have even thought about having prayer before a game.” Primus was careful to respect the manager’s authority, and make sure the timing would not interfere with team preparation. “Now others have joined us, like the kit man and the masseur. Even some of the non- Christian players come in to pray.” Playing hard on the field has long been linked to playing hard off the field. After all, sport is traditionally a social activity; and it’s not that long since even the nation’s greatest sportsmen could be found doing their pre-match training in the local pub with a fag in hand. Professional sportsmen today are, of course, far more aware of the importance of healthy living. They’re also far better paid than their predecessors, and hedonism and materialism are two very real temptations.

World cup winner One way that Christians are making their mark in the sporting world is by standing apart from that culture. Perhaps no sporting testimony bears this out today as well as that of rugby union’s Jason Robinson, who scored an unforgettable try in England’s 2003 World Cup win and returned to compete in this year’s Six Nations tournament after a self-imposed retirement from the international game.

Robinson began his career in rugby league, where his natural speed and power quickly elevated him to a star player, and he enjoyed everything that came with that: the fame, the money, the girls. By the age of 20 he had a child from one relationship, was about to leave a second, and was drinking regularly, and heavily. “I was earning a lot of money, I had a fast car, nice clothes. People wanted to be associated with me.” he once said. “But inside I was empty.”

It was his fellow player, Va’aiga Tuigemala who, by living out a Christ-centred life within the team, made Robinson realise the selfishness of his behaviour. Now, as the captain of Sale, and as England’s most celebrated winger, Robinson is demonstrating the same to a new generation of players. He has long since quit drinking, and has a much-loved family.

Temptations and pressuresIn Premiership football, where a player’s average yearly salary is nearing £750,000, it’s very hard for young players – even the older ones – to keep their feet anywhere near the ground. “Over all, what you see in football is what you get,” says Primus. “There’s a lot of money around, and there’s the ability to be involved in things you wouldn’t if you didn’t have that money. Certainly before I became a Christian my focus was to try and earn lots of money so I could live a good life.”

Phil Starbuck has seen the dangers. A former professional footballer, he knows the pressures they face and now works on the Christians in Sport staff providing support to players in the Premiership and the Championship. “Different people handle the financial side in different ways,” says Starbuck. “For some players, both the lifestyle and the amount of money they earn can make them so bored that they go gambling, or drinking. You’ve got to be wise. Money, sex, or drink and drugs are often the way people fall – that’s the same anywhere in life, but because of the financial rewards in football the levels of temptation are higher. I know of times when players have been staying at a hotel and girls have knocked at the door and the press are downstairs waiting.”

Primus knows the score. “I have to be doubly careful, I have to be very very watchful, because the enemy’s out there to try and trip me up. I try not to get myself into situations where temptations can draw me. What I’ve found is that I don’t go out as often as some do, and when the opportunity comes I try not to get sucked into heavy drinking because I know that’s when my guard will be down.” In fact, he says, the team trips to the pub can have their advantages. “Sometimes those are times when people really open up, and I’ll give them the gospel if they want to hear it.”

Mixed blessings

The quantity of media coverage of sport also means that a Christian in toplevel sport is not just witnessing to his team-mates, but to the world at large. That can be a mixed blessing, as cricket followers have had cause to know in recent years.

The South African cricket team of the mid-1990s, for instance, openly celebrated their born-again faith under the captaincy of Hansie Cronje, praying and studying the Bible together. When Cronje – who wore a ‘What Would Jesus Do’ wristband on the pitch – was discovered to have been involved in match-fixing and banned from cricket for life, the reaction was one of shock and dismay. Although his team-mates publicly forgave him, the stigma clung on, both to him and to his avowed faith. Public redemption never came; he was killed in a plane crash in 2002.

Of course we should expect professional sportsmen of any faith to play hard, and to play to win. Matthew Hayden, Australia’s opening batsman, is both a born-again believer and known for his fierce sledging (shouting comments to distract an opponent) – a thought-provoking – or maybe just provoking – combination. But read any paper, or listen to pub chat, and the message is clear: even the secular world is fed up with cheating. From diving in football to drugs in athletics, fans are tiring of the win-at-all-costs philosophy and looking for integrity to be restored.

Christians can provide exactly that by playing with humility, and with honesty. One of Primus’s most telling statistics is this: by mid February he had been given only one yellow card so far for the season, unusual for a regular first-team player, remarkable for a defender. Nevertheless, Starbuck believes the most difficult tests for a Christian sportsman tend not to come during the season, but rather at its conclusion.

“I’m always busiest in my role as a counsellor at the end of each season,” he says. “During the season, footballers’ lives are so organised. They have certain roles within the team, their training is laid on for them, their kit’s out for them, they’re told where to be, driven to hotels, and given the best of everything. It’s when that’s gone and they suddenly have free time that they can lose their shape as a Christian. Part of my biggest job is to get them out of this environment where everything is done for them.”

It’s appropriate, then, that Primus’s plans for the off-season are already well laid. He will be begin it by taking a team of 18 volunteers trekking up Mount Sinai. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he beams. “Camping out under the stars, no tents, camels carrying our bags.” If he sounds undaunted, perhaps it’s because he did a similar trek a few years ago along the Great Wall of China.

Now, as then, he will be raising money for Faith in Football, the charity he set up with Mick Mellows five years ago to reach and encourage children in some of the poorer areas of Portsmouth through regular organised football. It’s here that his heart lies; you suspect that, when his playing days are over, Primus will be almost pleased of the extra time to spend with his charity. Certainly he won’t be stuck for something to do. “I know when football finishes I’m going to be forgotten as a footballer,” says Primus. “Football life isn’t real. If you believe it is you will be let down by it. But I know something that is real.”

Emma John is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Christianity magazine.