Fans of Liverpool Football Club have had a good year. Football pundits have focused on all the training ground tricks and innovations that have contributed to an unprecedented year of success, but they seem to have missed a strand that may have real significance. During the year Bobby got baptised. That’s Roberto Firmino, who wears the No. 9 shirt. A couple of his teammates Alisson Becker and Fabinho were his supporters, together they worship regularly as part of Hillsong Church. Mo Salah and Sadio Mané celebrate their goals by performing sajdah, the Islamic act of prostration to God, and Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, openly refers to the importance of his Christian faith, especially as a life in football has so many ups and downs.
Anyone who watches professional football will be familiar with the religious antics of players as they process on to the pitch at the start of a match. Some will make the sign of the cross, or look up to the heavens and ask for a blessing. And after a goal the religious repertoire becomes even more frenetic. What are we to make of these religious displays? Are they little more than superstition attired in religious garb? And more to the point, what do fans, both in the stadium and on the settee, make of such ‘in your face’ religiosity? Research[i] suggests 67% of fans consider football to be like a religion to them. The stadium is hallowed ground and attendance both at home and away is the pilgrimage. The heroes are unashamedly compared with Jesus – I grew-up with the Bill Shankly epithet – that he – Shankly, walks on water. And Shankly himself, speaking to a Liverpool fan at Anfield, asked “Where are you from?”, “I’m a Liverpool fan from London”, “Well laddie…what’s it like to be in heaven?”
There is evidence that the faith of footballers has an impact on fans. Research by Stanford University found an 18.9 per cent drop in anti-Muslim hate crimes on Merseyside since Mohammed Salah signed for Liverpool, and anti-Muslim tweets by Liverpool fans halved compared to other major Premier League clubs. Liverpool F.C. now has a multi-faith room so Muslims (as well as others) can pray, halal food is available and the Kop sings exultantly, “If he scores another few then I’ll be Muslim too, He’s sitting in the Mosque that’s where I wanna be”. There is of course a hazard to this emulation and Salah’s and Mané’s performance of the sajdah – if they stop scoring, they will stop performing a sajdah and fans may love them and Islam a little less.
Sport is awash with superstition and rituals. Tennis ace Serena Williams bounces her ball five times before her first serve. Or in the case of the famous Johan Cruyff, when playing for Ajax, just before kick-off, he’d slap goalkeeper Gert Bals in the stomach, and then spit his chewing gum into the opposition half. Sports psychologists suggest such rituals provide athletes with a sense of being in control in the midst of the intense stress of competition. Superstitions and rituals are bits of behaviour that we know in reality have no effect on the world or the future, but they get cemented into our repertoire of actions. We cling to these habits because we cannot in times of pressure risk what might happen if we change them. Their rationality or logic is not the point; all of us are prone to acquiesce to simple answers when under pressure.
But Firmino got baptised, fully immersed, commending Jesus on Instagram, where it was viewed 3.2 million times in one day. This is not superstition, this is the full embracing of the Christian faith. One can speculate on the impact on fans, might they too want to experience Hillsong Church? Might they too want to take the love of Jesus more seriously because of his raw Brazilian evangelical urging and by the example of so many other leading lights at Liverpool FC? My hunch is that the answer for some, maybe many will be positive; a hunch shaped also by what has happened after the tragedy of 96 deaths and 766 injuries at Hillsborough. On the day after the tragedy at Hillsborough in 1989, 13,000 people gathered at Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral -5000 inside and 8000 more outside. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was sung by a lone choir boy, offering both comfort and hope to a city in mourning. Thirty years later Liverpool fans were fulsome in their praise for James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool, for listening well to their experience on that dreadful day and during the months and years that followed, and for courageously helping to speak their truth to power.
Many of the clubs in the Premiership were set up by churches. Manchester City started as a church team, Everton began as St Domingo’s FC, and Wolverhampton Wanders was once St Luke’s. This implicit mission focus of the 1860’s and 1870’s surely deserves to bear fruit. And there are lessons in this for today’s mission shaped enterprises – the fruit may take decade upon decade to appear and it will show itself in unexpected ways. Who would have guessed that the harvest would be gathered in by Hillsong, a church network founded in the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia? Who would have guessed that it would contribute to a more generous attitude to Islam, or a greater acceptance of diversity? And who would have guessed it would have contributed to the focus and dignity with which Klopp and the team dominated the English Premiership in the season 2019-20?
Ann Morisy: A lifelong supporter of Liverpool FC
[i] Social Issues Research Centre (Football Passions 2008)