At first glance this question sounds outrageous and somewhat comical especially with all the negative media attention surrounding football at this current moment in time. This last month has seen many damning comments about the integrity of the game and the conduct of both players and fans alike. However the more you look beyond the initial negative press and look at the evidence, the opening question begins to seem a little less comical.
In Matthew’s gospel (22:34-40), the Pharisees questioned Jesus asking what the greatest commandment was; he replied “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” I’m sure these words will be very familiar to most of us and we will have read or heard this passage spoken at least once in our lives. The reason for this is simple as Jesus said himself (v39) “This is the great and foremost commandment”, it is the blueprint for Christian living laid out plain and simple for all to see. Jesus continued, “The second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Now I wonder how many of us can genuinely say we have followed those commandments.
Let’s switch our attention back to football fans for a moment. We all know that officially no football team is a religion in its own right, however I put it to you that some football fans love their chosen team (their god) with more of their heart, soul and mind than some Christians love God. Before you dismiss this idea completely let’s look at the evidence- every weekend hundreds of thousands of football fans gather up and down the country, embarking on a weekly pilgrimage across the country to wherever their team are playing to join with fellow fans to watch their chosen team and players. Huddled in the stands, through wind and rain, fans support their team full-heartedly with a passion unseen in most churches today; cheering, shouting, clapping and displaying banners. Songs echo around the ground exalting, praising and encouraging players whilst celebrating past successes. I wonder if this description of football fans praising their team mirrors the praise given each Sunday morning in our churches.
Let’s look further. Some extreme football fans would openly admit that their chosen football team comes above anything else in their life. Nothing emphasises this point better than a banner that is seen week in week out at Old Trafford stadium- the home of Manchester United football club. The banner simply states the fan’s priorities in life- “United, kids, wife. In that order” and since its first unveiling has become synonymous with the club. Many football fans have centred their lives on their chosen football club, travelling huge distances and overcoming many obstacles to ensure they can be at the ground to watch their team. I wonder if we were to honestly look at our own priorities in life if God would genuinely be in front of our children, wife, friends, job and other commitments. Would we really travel for hours, against all obstacles to ensure we were at church on time each week?
I can imagine that comical question earlier isn’t looking too comical anymore. For many fans their identity lies in the team they support; fans will proudly and unashamedly plaster themselves, homes and cars in club memorabilia signifying their allegiance to that team. This passion for a team unites people, creating an inherent sense of community, a family of like-minded people, overcoming many barriers in place in society today such as sex, age, race and upbringing that would normally divide people. Children are brought up into this family, educated and inducted. Passion, knowledge and memories are passed from generation to generation. For football fans’, supporting their team doesn’t end when the final whistle goes, it is a lifelong passion. Over the years fans constantly check for news, updates and information to ensure they are as up to date as possible with their team. This constant learning and accumulation of information inevitably leads to discussions with rival fans, both trying to convince the other that their team is the best team to follow. This comprehensive knowledge and passion allows them to confidently debate, and even if they’re knocked back, the ingrained love they have for their team will ensure this does not waver their support.
I think we should be asking ourselves; how do we show our unashamed allegiance to God to the world? What do we do when the final whistle goes and the sermon ends? Do we go off in search of more information, debating and discussing? The list could go on. There are many issues in the world of football today but it isn’t by chance that attendances at football matches easily exceed 30 million people a year in England alone. Football fans on the whole are passionate, knowledgeable, confident, proud, welcoming and committed it’s little wonder the ‘religion’ of football is growing. We can learn from football fans and I believe it is a challenge to us all. If football fans can produce such passion that spills out of their heart, body and mind for mere mortals playing a game… how much greater as saved sinners should our passion for Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour be.