Faith and football. How the church made football the game it is today.

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My friend Simon Goddard wrote this cracking message about football with a little help from “Aston Villa and the Mission of God” published in Christianity Magazine June 2010:

In local ministry we used to show the World Cup matches on a big screen, providing a family friendly venue in a rural context for those who wanted to follow England’s progress (or lack of it). I was able to point out to those who came along that faith has played a significant part in football over the years. In fact, just like healthcare and education, the national game has much to thank the church for. In the latter part of the 19th century, with the advent of the 5½ day week, many of the men coming out of work at lunchtime on a Saturday would spend the afternoon drinking their wages away. Christians, seeing the impact of this on families and communities, sought to respond to this problem by setting up football clubs.

These church-based teams began to flourish and in 1886, at the initiative of William McGregor of the Aston Villa Wesleyan Football Club, ten of them organised themselves into a league structure. At Swindon Town FC the local church youth worker, Harold Fleming, became a star player of this era, and went on to play for England. Fulham FC also had its origins in the church, and even the local vicar was regularly on the team sheet. Basil Wilberforce, the grandson of the great anti-slavery campaigner, was instrumental in the formation of St. Mary’s Association Football Club, which later to become Southampton FC.

Other teams with similar stories include: Manchester City – whose first ever match, in 1880, was against a team from Macclesfield Baptist Church; Barnsley St. Peter’s Football Club – now simply known as Barnsley FC; Queen’s Park Rangers, originally Christ Church Rangers; and Tottenham Hotspur, which grew out of young men’s Bible class at All Hallows Church. The story of football in Liverpool is interesting too. Everton FC was formed by St Domingo Methodist Chapel, but one of its early patrons (he paid the rent of Everton’s football ground in Anfield) was a local brewer, and at a club meeting a teetotal church member challenged him. It resulted in a split – the brewer, John Houlding, withdrew his support from Everton and a new team Liverpool FC was born, and Anfield became its home instead!

Football in this country has changed a lot since then with players now earning ridiculous amounts of money; but faith and football can still work hand in hand. The Youth for Christ ‘Nomad’ team take a football cage around the UK to engage young people with the gospel; and in the Global South, churches continue to offer hope through the beautiful game. There have also been some powerful times of witness on the football field – who can forget the scenes at the end of the 2002 World Cup when most of the victorious Brazilian team fell to their knees and prayed as the final whistle blew, including Kaká who revealed an ‘I Belong to Jesus’ T-shirt.

Whilst ministering at Zion Baptist Church in Cambridge I was involved in the setting up Jimmy’s Nightshelter and its football team, the Zion Eagles. Some of the young, and not so young, men from the Nightshelter were invited to come along to a regular football training session on a Tuesday evening, but were only allowed to play if they were sober. Over time, fitness improved, people became more disciplined and motivated not to drink or do drugs, and we became part of the local church league. We didn’t always win, but if there was a ‘fairplay’ award we would certainly have been in the running!

A few years later the Zion Eagles were involved in a special game against a University team on the nearby Parker’s Piece in Cambridge. The newspaper headlines declared “football’s coming home to Cambridge, birthplace of the modern game”. As football began to grow in popularity, all sorts of different rules were developed across the country. The FA was formed in 1863 to try and sort out a common set of rules, and the set of rules that was chosen was based on those being used by Cambridge University since 1848. To mark this fact, the newly agreed FA rules were first used at a special game played on 20th November 1863 on Parker’s Piece. The Zion Eagles match was a re-enactment of that first match – and a plaque was unveiled to commemorate the game. David Elleray was one of the umpires for the match, and commentary over the loud speaker was provided by Jimmy Hill.

The motivation of the Zion Eagles team mirrored that of the early churches involved in the first football league – to respond to people’s needs, as encouraged of us by Jesus in Matthew 25, and to do this in a creative and enjoyable way. God gives us good gifts – and I believe football is one of them. Whether the weeks ahead prove to be a story of victory or defeat for the England team, let’s continue to be creative in our mission, and use every opportunity to demonstrate and communicate the truth of the gospel. Remember that whilst English goalkeepers may sometimes let us down, Jesus always saves!

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