12 May 2016, The Tablet

Hymns from the terraces


David Beckham recently referred to Wembley as a “sacred” place. The former England football captain’s heart is in the right place, even if it is not the same place as his vocabulary, but everyone knew what he meant.

He was objecting to the recent practice of playing semi-final fixtures at the home of English football, when formerly the national stadium was used only for cup finals and international matches. And yet, in his innocent way, Beckham made a valid point. The notion of football – or rugby, or cricket – as a secular “religion” is an old and problematic one. The implication is that sport and what Lionel Trilling referred to as its associated “pieties” have come to replace orthodox faith in the lives of those who follow it. The association between fandom and fanaticism hardly needs to be laboured, particularly around local derby time.

Perhaps the simplest form of “religious” observance to be seen and heard at sports grounds is singing, and this week BBC’s Songs of Praise launches the Rugby League Challenge Cup Fans Choir, which will see supporters from 32 of the teams in this year’s competition lead a sell-out crowd in the cathedral that is Wembley in a doubtless tear-jerking performance of “Abide With Me”.

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