Jesus and the World Cup

If you are fed up with the amount of media coverage devoted to the World Cup, it may just be because:

a. you hate football.
b. England has already been kicked out.
c. you are not English and your team has been kicked out too.
d. any combination of the above.

On the other hand you may be utterly ecstatic because:

a. football is your thing.
b. England is still in there with a chance.
c. You’re not English and your team is still in with a chance.
d. you hate football and England has already been kicked out.
e. any combination of the above.

For some, football is their life, indeed it is their god. Their football pitch is hallowed ground. Apart from the bathroom, it is the only other place on earth where they will sing at the tops of their voices.

Many think that Church and football are in competition.  Comparisons are common, although Sunday church attendance in Britain still far exceeds Saturday football attendance, its just you would not know it given the pages devoted to football in the Sunday newspapers.

Dave Roberts has written a brilliant article in Christianity about the origins of football in the UK, showing the profound impact local churches had in the formation of many of the leading clubs of today.

The association between Church and football is actually much closer than most people realise.  As organized football grew throughout the 1860s and 1870s, it was actually church based teams which took the initiative to form the Football League in 1886. Tired of friendlies against inferior local opposition and the occasional thrill of the cup, William McGregor of the Aston Villa (Wesleyan) Football Club decided to see if there was interest in a league structure. Ten of the other teams joining Villa during that first decade of the league were church affiliated, with Methodists and Anglicans at the fore.

One of the founders, HS Yoxall, found large numbers of young men playing football on Sundays. He persuaded them to come to Bible class and provided a field for them to play on, on Saturdays. The same mission started cycling, rambling and angling clubs, and offered classes in arithmetic, writing, shorthand and music. They had a gymnasium, games room, lounge, library and refreshment bar. As this distinctive mission work went on, the Aston Villa (Wesleyan) Football Club grew from humble beginnings in 1874 to winning the FA Cup in 1887. McGregor had worked hard to curb the drinking of team members, and called a team meeting every Monday in a local coffee shop to help the players discover other social outlets.

John Henry Carwell, the vicar of St Andrews in Fulham, turned to the then 15 year old Tom Norman to recruit players for what became Fulham FC. He felt people needed to belong before they could believe. The church fed 160 poor local children daily with free hot dinners, while at the same time opened a gym to encourage fitness and sport.  Southampton FC, similarly was founded by the curate of St Mary’s Church in the town.

Two other notable clubs founded by parish churches were Barnsley and Manchester City.  Vicar’s daughter, Anna Connell started a men’s club at St Mark’s, West Gorton with around a hundred local young men to dissuade them from organised fighting. A football club was formed to help ‘deepen the bonds’ between them. The first match in 1880 of the team that would become Manchester City was against Macclesfield Baptist.

Queens Park estate in West London was another community in which the church initiated a football team. Christ Church Rangers eventually became Queens Park Rangers. Tottenham Hotspur similarly grew out of a young men’s Bible class at All Hallows, Tottenham. And teetotal Everton players associated with St Domingo Methodist Chapel actually provoked the formation of Liverpool FC when a small number of members formed the new club on Everton’s old ground at Anfield following a dispute over alcohol.

So maybe the Christian origins of the Street Child World Cup that has preceded the World Cup in Rio should come as no surprise after all. For more information see Umthombo.

With grateful thanks to Dave Roberts for his article, Aston Villa and the Mission of God in Christianity (June) 2010.

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