Could watching football be a religious experience?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Easter is massive in the English Premier League, watched on TV the world over. Key matches across the weekend will play their part in deciding who wins the league, who will be in the running for a European title next season – and who faces relegation.

Legendary Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger contrasted Easter with Christmas, as he weighed up Liverpool's chances of contesting the Gunners' claim on winning the Premier League back in December 2002. He said: "Liverpool are not out of the championship race. It would be premature to say that.

"Christmas is important, but not decisive. If it was Easter, then maybe I'd have to say 'yes.' But Christmas? No, it is too early to write them off."

The rest, as they say, is history, with Arsenal finishing runners-up to Manchester United at the end of the 2002/2003 season.

To paraphrase Arsene Wenger, 'Christmas is important, but Easter is decisive.' That's the Christian message of resurrection and new life in a sentence – played out, some would say, at football grounds this weekend.

I've written about the parallels between football and faith, and about football grounds being 'sacred' places for many. It's why some fans seek to have their cremated ashes sprinkled on or near the pitches of their teams.

But comedian and author David Baddiel put it far better than me in a recent interview. He said: "Football fills a God-shaped hole, I think. Because it makes you feel connected to something besides yourself. It is, in a small way, eternal.

"If you've been going to Chelsea, as I have, for 40 years, you think: 'I have watched players come and go, and die. And I'm still here. And I feel connected to the a priori idea of Chelsea and football, which is sort of beyond the here and now. It's identity and it's tribalism, and it's opposition to other tribes. It feels very religious."

Replace 'Chelsea' with any Premier League or Football League club and you get the way many fans feel about their club. Players come and go, managers come and go, owners come and go, but the club lives on.

Friendships forged on the terraces and around football grounds can endure for generations. They can also strengthen family ties, as children and grandchildren are taken to matches – and then take their own children in later years.

Many top football clubs trace their roots back to local churches and, just this week, the Church of England has promoted the success of a football academy run by an enterprising west London church.

This Easter, many football fans will be watching their teams play vital matches. Emotions will be riding high, and many prayers will be said in stadiums across the country. Just how much faith goes with the prayers is a question to be debated.

But churches and Christians could find much to ponder in the passion, enthusiasm and long-term commitment shown by football supporters – the vast majority of whom will not be in church on Easter Day.

Does their dedication and – dare I say – 'discipleship' bring a challenge for the church this Easter?

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK, a season ticket holder at Brentford FC and a former communications director with the CofE.