By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service, and a former soccer goalkeeper in the UK
LONDON, UK (ANS – April 24, 2017) — Christianity, with more than 2.2 billion believers, ranks second among the major “religions” of the world.
So, who’s first? Well believe it or not, the “church of soccer” tops the list, while Christianity is second, with Islam and its 1.6 million adherents, comes in third.
One billion fans tuned in to watch the final of the final of the FIFA world cup competition in Rio, with the competition reaching a global in-home television audience of 3.2 billion people, according to final figures from FIFA and Kantar Media.
Please bear in mind that the world’s population in 2013 was estimated at 7.125 billion.
It is not clear how many people attend the “church of soccer” games — or football, as most of the world calls it — but my recent visit to England bore out for me how soccer has become a larger “religion, with its “hymns,” sung by fanatical fans, priests (coaches or managers), and huge crowds making pilgrimages to “churches” — stadiums — to go through the often painful ritual of supporting their team and seeing the player-objects of their devotion in person.
It is often a tribalism is more passionate than you’d find in even the most organized of religions. Most religious leaders at least pay lip service to the brotherhood-sisterhood of those who follow other faiths/teams, but the single-minded tribalism among so many fans is overwhelming. They wear the jerseys of their favorite teams, and the opposition are generally considered “the enemy,” sometimes literally, with chants attacking them.
Even as a teenager, I was so committed to soccer, that I would literally “help myself” to some of the offerings placed in the plate of my father’s church in Birmingham, and then used it to pay my admission to St. Andrew’s, the home ground of Birmingham City F.C. (I had persuaded my father, the Rev. Alfred Wooding, to allow me count the Sunday-morning offerings and make sure I had just enough to see the next game, something he was not aware of at the time.)
I was also an avid “church of soccer” goalkeeper, playing for a series of amateur teams in the Birmingham area until I suffered enough injuries to persuade me to halt my career.
On my latest trip to the UK, I attended one game in the city of Rotherham in Yorkshire, with my two sons, Andrew and Peter, and sat with the Birmingham fans and was shocked with the incredible swearing and crude “hymns” performed by the fans of my team. Even the kids there with their parents, joined in.
Then on Easter Monday, the club provided free tickets to Peter and myself for their home game with Burton Albion, which they lost 0-2. However, it wasn’t all bad, as they also featured a story in the club program about how I used to pay Peter to provide match reports for the home games of The Blues, as they are known, hoping that one day he too would become a journalist like his Dad. It worked and as I write this, Peter is in Georgia doing another reporting assignment, and his photo at one of those earlier games was featured in the program.
Peter Lewis, the editor of the program, also came to the foyer of the club and we had a lovely chat about the old days.
Following their loss, the club appointed a new “high priest” — Harry Redknapp – but he still wasn’t able to stop the rot on Sunday, when The Blues were beaten 1-0 by their deadly rivals, Aston Villa, and are now in danger of being relegated to a lower division of English soccer.
Still there are many evangelicals Christians who are playing the “beautiful game” and acknowledge the “higher power” when they score a goal and then point heaven ward.
According to the Economist, as recently as 2009, the football authorities in Brazil got a scolding from FIFA, the body which administers soccer worldwide, because Brazilian players were in the habit of proclaiming their religious faith in spectacular ways.
“Whether battling for their own country or for foreign sides, Brazilian players of a Pentecostal or evangelical persuasion like to display their faith by pointing upwards to heaven after a goal, kneeling to give thanks after a victorious match, or, as ‘Kaká’ famously did in 2002 and often thereafter, stripping down to an under-shirt which proclaims, ‘I belong to Jesus’. FIFA reminded the Brazilians of a rule stating that “….the basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements.” It later clarified that it was not banning religion altogether; kneeling to pray was still alright.”
So, what should we make of this fanatical religion of soccer? Well, during my visit to the UK I attended a church service of an Assemblies of God group called Audacious, who met at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Trinity Street in Chester. There was enough room for 600 people and provided a home for a campus that serves Chester, Cheshire, North Wales and all the surrounding areas! It was the nearest thing I had witnessed in Britain to a soccer game, with lots of noise, lights, cheering, Christian rock worship music, and great enthusiasm.
Still, it has a long way to go to attract the huge crowds that soccer draws in both the UK, and around the world.
Are you disturbed by this sporting phenomenon that has enveloped the lives of millions on our planet? Can we learn anything from this new “religion” in which its “worshippers” fork out millions of dollars to take part in their “services”? If so, let me know by e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, what you think and also how the Church can counteract its influence?
Photo captions: 1) Brazilian star, Kaká, reveals his faith 2) Dan during his goalkeeping days in Birmingham. He is third from the left at the back. 3) Peter Wooding during a reporting assignment for his father at The Blues. 4) Harry Redknapp shows the agony of losing to Aston Villa 5) Dan with Peter Lewis, Program editor of the Birmingham City FC program. 6) Dan and Peter Wooding in the UK.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 76, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 54 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He has written some 45 books and Dan hosts a weekly radio show and two TV programs in Southern California.
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