Should Christians give up on football?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Has the time come for Christians to show football the red card? As the English Premier League season draws to a close, is the gulf between faith and football now so wide that Christians should be embarrassed about playing any part in 'the beautiful game'?

Has the Premier League – watched by fans across the world, including the US and south-east Asia – now become so embroiled in rows over foreign ownership of clubs, the persistent stain of racism and violence, and the massive influence of gambling, that it's difficult for Christians, in good conscience, to admit to a passion for soccer?

The tragic case of Ivan Toney, the Premier League striker diagnosed with a gambling addiction, has brought many of the sport's woes into sharp focus.

Brentford forward Toney, who had just made his England debut and was one of the season's top scorers, has been suspended for eight months because of placing bets on matches. The Football Association said the penalty would have been longer had it not been for the 27-year-old's diagnosed addiction.

Pundits have pointed out the irony of Toney being penalised for gambling, when his club has a gambling company as its shirt sponsor and betting adverts feature prominently in the grounds where he plays, as well as on TV, radio and online.

Even on Sunday, as Toney watched out his team's last match of the season – a home win against league champions Manchester City – gambling ads still featured prominently around the pitch perimeter. Many Christian groups and others have called for the close links between football and betting to be severed.

Several of today's Premier League teams – including Manchester City, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – trace their roots back to local churches, yet their founders would scarcely recognise what has happened to the sport.

So should Christians be giving up on the game?

As a lifelong Brentford FC supporter, and Church of England minister, I declare an interest - and a fascination with the power of football.

Comedian, author and atheist David Baddiel said in a recent interview: "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."

Nick Hornby chronicled the life of a passionate fan in his best-selling 'Fever Pitch,' describing how the supporter's identity and wellbeing was directly linked to their club's fortunes.

So I'd say, rather than give up on football, Christians could be asking what they can learn from the game and the commitment it promotes.

How, for example, the passion and enthusiasm in grounds around the country on Sunday – Pentecost in the church calendar – far outshadowed the exuberance on display in the vast majority of our churches - Luton's promotion to the Premier League prompted major celebrations across the town.

Or what we can learn from the steps that clubs have taken to become broader in their appeal, with the fast-growing popularity of the women's game just one example of this.

Add to this the positive impact that many clubs make in their local communities, running a wide range of health and education programmes – using the power of football to reach groups that other organisations find it hard to connect with.

And round all this off with the deep knowledge of the sport – the teams, the players, the rules, even the officials – that you can hear from supporters. I've not heard many sermons being discussed in the same way.

So I will not be walking away from football any time soon, although I recognise its sins and shortcomings and will support those working to remedy them.

Instead, I'll be reflecting on what the Church can learn from football about passion and commitment, reaching new groups, community involvement and education.

I'll continue to value the ministry of chaplains that work within the clubs, and also the engagement that many churches have with the sport. The Church of England recently highlighted the success of a church-run football academy in west London, where the number of children enrolled had more than tripled.

Far from thinking about rejecting football, maybe Christians ought to be focusing more on what we can learn from it?

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK, and a former communications director with the CofE.