11 December 2019, The Tablet

‘Playing sport for Jesus’

‘Playing sport for Jesus’

Soccer-loving Pope Francis is presented with a football shirt for the Serie B side, ChievoVerona
PA/Servizio Fotografico/IPA MilestoneMedia


A radio documentary examines the powerful combination of God and football, and the way sport can be used to encourage lapsed Christians back into the pew

When did Christianity start to take a serious interest in sport? The most obvious date for God’s appearance behind the goalposts is the late nineteenth century, when “muscular Christians” were hard at work preaching the Gospel both in public schools and in the boys’ clubs of the industrial north.

Association football – the sport of choice, owing to its widespread popularity among working-class teenagers – was a proselytiser’s dream: a game that, with its communal ethos, its emphasis on “pluck” and “courage” and the opportunities it offered for selfless, team-oriented endeavour, already came dripping with moral possibility. All that was needed was a decisive spiritual twist.

Once this was applied, and come the early 1900s, God and soccer were inextricably linked. Several ornaments of the modern football league can trace their origins back to church-sanctioned youth teams. Vicars were expected to take to the field with their choristers: “playing soccer with the lads is since his day” notes a middle-aged cleric in F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter (1924), when the talk turns to the elderly Canon Jocelyn’s attitude to youth work. Subsidised by the Religious Tract Society, and focused on the medium of the boys’ school story, an entire literature sprang into view in which fresh-faced schoolboys “played the game” and defeated less morally worthy opponents, snug in the conviction that God was on their side.

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