Thursday, September 03, 2009

Football Spirituality

Introduction - Wonderful World of Sports
Sports is one of the biggest past-times in the West, probably in large parts of the world. The highest advertising revenue generated is arguably the SuperBowl, where a 60 sec slot can cost a whopping $6 million dollars. Gambling revenues skyrocket when hot teams clash. Typically, sports cable channels charge considerably more money than regular news, documentaries, family and even movie channels. 'Football' in America refers to a ball that looks like a rugby ball. Outside North America, the football title belongs to soccer. The upside of sports is the gathering of friends and family to cheer their favorite teams. The downside is the aftermath of any emotionally charged game. When the stakes are high, it can be difficult to distinguish the hype from reality. Our feelings rise and fall according to what happens in the football pitch.

I remember in the 70s in Singapore, where football is regularly held at the National Stadium. There was the famous Kallang Roar, where more than 65000 fans will do the wave, scream their lungs out and shout their voices sore for the national football team. Emotions run high throughout the game. Enthusiasm manifests itself via long snake-like queues for tickets. High expectations fill the air as people patiently wait for the start of the game. On game day, irritated fans jaunt or hurl abuses at the referee's decisions. Others trumpet their support for their favourite team while many ride the rollercoaster of emotions. After the game, results show in the faces and body language of people streaming out of the stadium. You can easily tell which team won or lost simply by looking at the facial expression of the supporters. You know them by the jerseys they wear or the tattoos they smear on their faces. It is nice to see one's winning team overcome the opponent. It is depressing when one's team is defeated. Gamblers have even more at stake. Not only do they cheer for their teams, the results determine the size of their winnings or the magnitude of their loss. With the coming June 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, we will soon see another round of fanaticism over football. Undisputably the world's most popular sports, for one month, next year, billions will be glued to the high quality soccer matches with special attention on top teams from Europe, South America and Africa. Even more billions will be poured into industries benefiting from the game. The more popular the game, the higher the stakes. The higher the expectations, the higher the probabilities of violence. In certain cases, it is not simply supporting one's favorite team. It has to do with pride and reputation. Some winners-take-all scenario gives very little room for mistakes. People have known to commit suicide when their team lose a match. Hooligans roam the streets when they felt the result was unjust. Rival fans even create their own warzones and the unsuspecting supporter of an opposing team can be clobbered badly if found in the wrong neighborhood.

I find sports particularly fascinating for at least two reasons. It can bring out the worst in us. It can also draw out the best we have.

Brief Recollection of My Footballing Journey
I fell in love with football at first sight. In school, even stones and pebbles can be cheap footballs. Recess time and after school hours mean one thing: Let's play football! At one time, my team was planning our own jersey designs, name as well as picking out our opponents one by one. Our weekly pocket money will be poured into soccer weeklies, stadium tickets as well as buying the best soccer ball our measly budgets allow. I watch football at home. I watch football from the stands. I watch soccer everytime I had the chance. I pray football when my team needs a last minute winner. I breathe football. I literally eat football, (like having a football designed cake for my birthday). Football is like a religion. Even today, I can feel my heart rise and fall, proportional to the fortunes of the teams I support.

Lately, I have been reflecting upon this crazy obsession. Is there a sinister agenda behind the powerful forces that lurks behind the most intense games? Are we victims of a conspiracy that surrounds profits and commercialism? Is footballing a form of escapism for many, away from the frustrations and disappointments in life? Why are people so easily swayed by media hype and results. In a result-driven world, people cast out the virtues of sportsmanship preferring their team to win at all cost. For the ardent supporter, anything other than a win is unacceptable.  For me, there are some games that I particularly dislike:

Games I dislike

  • where both teams played horribly;
  • boring games where neither teams want to score, or when they play half-heartedly;
  • where I have no interest in the teams played or what the result mean;
  • where my favourite team failed to play their best;
  • unsporting behavior;
  • show-off games;
  • totally lopsided games where superstars run rings around weaker players;
  • Fighting both on and off the pitch;
  • when the deserving team lost.

Such situations can wreak havoc to any person's cool and calm composure. It can unleash the wolf in us. Left unchecked, it can be deadly. An Indian friend of mine once shared with me, that there are 2 situations where it is absolutely critical for electricity to be 100% available for the public. The first is during elections. The second is during major sports games, especially cricket games between India and Pakistan. For the latter, if there is a power failure in the middle of an important game, the result will be horrendous. Villagers will spring out in utter uncontrollable anger. Riots can ravage many parts of the country. Violence is no stranger to the land of Britain. Just last week, fans supporting Millwall and West Ham pit their fists against each other in a Carling Cup tie. (link ) Deaths can also happen without a fight, like when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in the infamous Hillsborough Tragedy in 15 Apr 1989. A Columbian goalkeeper was reported to have been shot to death by a football fanatic when he returned home, after scoring an own goal in the game against the US. Sadly, the most beautiful sport in the world also retains a reputation for incubating an atmosphere of highly charged tempers, leading to brutality and fatality. People do stupid things when emotions rage supreme. A simple game of sports that stem from a desire for healthy competition and sportsmanlike behavior has been marred by scams, scars and scandals. Shame indeed! Join me to reflect together about sports. These are some of the questions I ask myself.

  • Why should I be so worked up over a football game?
  • Why must my worship on Sundays be influenced by the result of a football game?
  • Why should I subject my family to unhealthy tensions;
  • Why must my best/worst behavior be tied to a football?

A Spirituality of Football
May the best team win. May the game be played, lost or won, fair and square. This is a good starting point to begin learning about any spirituality of sports.

"Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules." (2 Tim 2:5)

Rules are there to guide us in our journey of life. We may not like it, but it is necessary to maintain order and give some legitimacy of the game being played. Unless one competes according to the rules, there will be no fair game. I like the recent practice where if one player is injured and falls on the ground, the game is halted simply by having the person possessing the ball kick it out of play. After the injured player is properly attended to, the grateful team kicks the ball back to the opponent. One of my favourite scenes is from a former West Ham player, Paolo Di Canio, who gave up a chance to score when the opposing goalkeeper was down injured (link). Suddenly, the high tensions from both sides that were flowing in opposite lanes, merge into a common stream of plain, simple human kindness and gratitude. Even the opposing players acknowledged the highly sportsmanlike gesture. Such scenes ought to be highlighted more often, even if they are few and far between in this highly commercialized game of football. Let me add a few points to my change of heart surrounding the spirituality of a football supporter. For Christians who are also sports lovers, I feel that we need to tackle the dragon of unruly passion. We need to submit our fervor to be examined under the light of God's grace and mercy.

Games I Enjoy

  • when my team wins when they play well;
  • when my team plays well regardless of the outcome;
  • When there is a comeback performance to reverse the scoreline;
  • when the better team wins in a gracious manner;
  • when both teams play their best and acknowledge the better team on and off the pitch;
  • when fans cheer more and jeer others less.

Enjoy a good game. Cherish a heartwarming match. On the pitch, push for quality play. Encourage sporting behavior. Cheer not only for our own team, but recognize good play by opponents where appropriate. I would rather recognize a good effort by an opposing team, than to jeer them merely because they wear a different jersey. Let's call a spade a spade. When a favorite team plays badly, they deserve to be reprimanded. Time wasting efforts, childish arguments with referees, deceptive diving in order to steal a penalty are all stupid acts that should not be condoned. Supporting our favourite team cannot be the only thing we do. We can participate in the game by being good supporters, not only for the team, but for the good game of sports. Here is my ABC in the spirituality of football.

A - Applaud good plays

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves." (Philippians 2:3)

Considering others better than ourselves is easily demonstrated by giving credit to whom credit is due. If the opposing goalkeeper makes an excellent save, clap your hands, for both goalkeeper and players involved in the buildup.

B - Boo Dirty Tactics

"The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight." (Proverbs 11:1)

Regardless of who executes the dirty tactics, we should all be ready to disapprove of them in the strongest possible manner. If appropriate, register a protest. Write to the press. Comment on bulletin boards. Unsporting behavior is like dishonest scales, which tries to stay in front of the pack by cheating. Detest such things.

C - Cheer Sporting Acts

Sometimes, we may witness little acts of graciousness on the pitch. Courtesy and respect for one another must be encouraged. I am personally touched whenever players stand together for the common good of the game. Like keeping a moment of silence when a team honors a prized player for his contributions, or to respect a legendary leader, a coach, even a faithful fan.

"Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." (Col 4:6)

We are witnesses for Christ both inside and outside the church walls, both during and after the football game. We do not simply forget our faith when we wear our sports hat. We wear the symbol of Christ through good and Christlike behavior. What better way than to affirm good respectable behavior whenever possible. It never hurts to remind one another that being good human people is far better than winning a game. Winning a game may decide this year's championship. Encouraging good behavior brings better dividends in forming better friendship.

Applaud good plays. Boo dirty tactics. Cheer sporting acts. This is my ABC of Football Spirituality. Delight in sportsmanlike attitudes. Enjoy the game. There is no need to fight and quarrel. One game does not make anyone an idiot, or shame anybody's name forever. There is always a next game, or next season, or next year. Don't fall into the devil's trap of fighting innocent people, just for the sake of a game. The game is important, but being human in God's image is far more important. Know the difference.

As fans, let us play our part. As Christians, let the testimony of Christ rule in our hearts, that even in a simple game of football, God's spirit of grace be reflected in sportsmanship. Let the game stay as games. Do not be silly to let games dictate our human relationships. After all, Christ died for all, fans, players, our team as well as our worthy opponents.


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