“It wasn’t a sermon,” said Sepp Blatter with a rather grizzly gravitas: “it was a message.” This was gnomic stuff from the sun-tanned President of FIFA, the international governing body of football. I guessed it was a compliment because of the accompanying air of bonhomie. He explained: “You and I think the same.” This came from a man dogged by accusations of financial mismanagement and corruption. I smiled, weakly.
My sermon to mark the 150th anniversary of the world’s oldest football club hardly broke new ground in the realm of moral theory. I had suggested that football was in danger of losing its soul to money and celebrity, and went on to aver that the very first football club — Sheffield FC — could teach most other professional teams a thing or two about the real heart of the beautiful game. At Sheffield FC, football is all about friendship, social inclusion, and community.
The gathered glitterati of world football looked uncomfortable in church, and sang as enthusiastically as Fulham on a wet February afternoon. I spoke about the way football has the ability to break down barriers of class, colour, religion, and language. The congregation half- listened, with bullet-proof indifference. At the end of the day, it was the best that I had to offer. I had found no route past their defences.
The delightful Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Jack Nicholls, was kind in thanking me for my effort. But you always know when a sermon has not scored. Was it me? Was it them? Or was it the whole civic-religion business, which can so easily hide the Church’s existential punch in a fog of formality?
My guess is that it was none of the above. The sermon was fine; the preparations were great in the magnificent Sheffield Cathedral — surely one of the best set-ups of any cathedral in the land. No, my guess is that football and Christianity have less in common than I had tried to make out.
Of course, many teams began as church teams. And, of course, many Christians love football — I am one of them. But there can be something maximally unreflective about the football supporter in football-supporting mode. My moral radar switches off when I watch Chelsea. We have just beaten Manchester City 6-0; so what do I care about where the roubles come from? I’ll just go on chanting.
Perhaps football is my time to switch off from the troubles of the world. That might be fair enough for 90 minutes, but it is hardly acceptable as a lifestyle choice. So, only after I got the chance to preach to Mr Blatter do I properly understand what I ought to have said: football is the opium of the people.
(c) Giles Fraser. The author is Anglican Team Rector of Putney, a football fan, an Ekklesia associate, a philosophy lecturer - and currently on a placement in California. With acknowledgements to the Church Times.
Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow, a Dumbarton supporter, maintains a football blog at: http://onlyjustoffside.blogspot.com/ Several of our staff and associates (of both genders, in case you wondered) are known to seek consolation in the Beautiful Game. Jonathan Bartley supports Nottingham Forest.