Christians who say football is only a game miss the point. Football is a game where people of all ages – and particularly young men – find community and identity. The fellow supporters who sit (or sometimes stand) by you on a freezing winter afternoon with the rain teeming down in buckets aren’t just a load of strangers you happen to have bumped into that Saturday. They are your fellow pilgrims in a journey of hope and despair, anxiety and joy. Even though it might cost a good part of your weekly wages to watch your team lose 3-0, you keep coming, because there is a bond with you and your club that is not easily broken. For better and for worse, it is your team, and the passions run deep.
I’ve seen this over the past year or so with all the tumultuous events at Plymouth Argyle. There the previous board turned a profitable club into a financial basket case with debts of ?£17millon pounds (the exact amount may never be known) – all in the space of three years. And it has to be said, the response of the fans has been magnificent. Over the past ten months they have raised over £50,000 for staff and players and campaigned for the club to have a future, when the most sensible solution would have been to have the club liquidated.
The staff and players themselves kept going without being properly paid all through this time. You have to realise the extraordinary attraction of football to understand just how everyone kept going through this most difficult phase in its history. With the loss of the club, the very identity of the city would have been weakened. I think the new owner has realised this, and we can only hope the present regime will enjoy a stable and fruitful period in charge.
And because football attracts such a deep passion, it is all the more shocking when a player you have known and admired for many a long year, all too soon, and all too tragically dies. It’s far too early to comment on the death of Gary Speed (if indeed comment should ever be made). But we need to remember this morning those people who will be providing spiritual support to the shocked, the bereaved and the heartbroken over the coming weeks and months. Football needs its chaplains more than ever, and we need to uphold them in their work.