June 11, 2021

A friend of mine opened a play in Buenos Aries several years ago. Ten minutes into the opening night a slovenly, drunken, and dishevelled figure pushed his way into the darkened theatre, parked himself on the front row and started to abuse the actors on stage. Now my friend — Micky — is from Belfast and is no shrinking violet. Having had enough of this man’s rudeness, he strode down the aisle preparing to eject him from the theatre, whereupon the Argentinean assistant director physically restrained him. “Rugby tackled” was how Micky described it to me. Ashen faced, the assistant director pointed to the drunk and gave a one word explanation for his vigorous intervention: “Deus,” he whispered.

“Football isn’t a game, nor a sport: it’s a religion” as Maradona — for it was he — once explained, a man whose hand was once compared to that of the Almighty himself. Later Micky would be invited back to Maradona’s nightclub. “Deus!” the clubbers all cried, as if the messiah came among his people. If they had had palms, I expect they would have waved them. Christianity has 2.2 billion followers worldwide. Football has three billion.

Many labour under a fantasy about how our deepest commitments are formed. That fantasy is often described as “being rational” — and it assumes that there is, or should be, a line of logic that can be followed from shared first principles all the way through to the things we believe in and commit too. It’s not true, of course. Many of the things we commit to, we do so because they exist prior to a line of reasoning. Our love of country, our religious faith. And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to football.

How it came to be is lost to memory, but I remember even as a child having posters of my heroes on the bedroom wall: Peter Osgood, Peter Bonetti. And my children have had the same. Didier Drogba for my eldest. Christian Pulisic — “Captain America” — for another. My youngest child is just two. When I ask him what team he supports, he answers correctly.

Chelsea is owned by a Russian oligarch and former Putin confidant, Roman Abramovich. He may or may not have made his billions through dodgy dealings in the wild east of post-Soviet Russia. But — and here is the thing — I don’t really care. Some of the players I have lauded in the past may have been little better than thugs. I even have a top with John Terry’s name on the back. He may not have been the most morally commendable of chaps. But — I don’t really care. I am slightly ashamed to admit it, but there is something about my football commitments that precede even my moral ones. When Chelsea got itself involved with the ill-fated Super League idea, I tweeted out that if they went through with it, I would abandon them. But I suspect I wouldn’t have. Some commitments just run too deep.

This is what scares liberals about the holy trinity of football, faith and nation. They are tribal. And our continued pre-rational allegiance to such things threatens the whole liberal/Enlightenment idea that rationality must form the basis for our fundamental take on the things.

There are converts, of course. People who come to faith later in life, after having thought about it. But it’s hard road to travel. If you ever reach the stage where you ask yourself “what football team should I support?” — as if supporting a team were the potential outcome of some act of rational comparison — then you will probably never come to support one at all. Some things don’t exist as choices in this way. They are givens, things that the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “horizons of significance”.

These basic givens do have a moral purpose, of course, despite their obvious moral blind spots. They are the basis for a shared, common life. In football, faith and nation, I have a kind of solidarity with others — both friends and strangers, people who are like me, people who are not like me — that cannot be achieved by rational decision making alone. Walking past a stranger on the street, I see their Chelsea top and I nod in recognition. They know why and smile back. We have a bond.

The theological way of expressing this is that belonging precedes believing. Generally speaking, people don’t decide to believe in God and then come to church. They start coming to church where, after a while, they find the God stuff starts to make a different kind of sense. Suddenly the words carry a weight of meaning that they didn’t previously have. In time, the convert is not on the outside looking in, but on the inside looking out. This will infuriate Alice Roberts and her fellow rationalists. But their spiky dismissal of faith as irrational just bounces off most believers. You can’t be reasoned out of something you were never reasoned into. Just as I won’t be reasoned out of following Chelsea “over land and sea, and Leicester” as the song goes. And no, I can’t remember the historic rivalry (I think it was something in the Seventies) that singles out one small Midlands town for special mention.

Inevitably, of course, the problem with these basic expressions of solidarity is that having a sense of “us” is inevitably linked to a sense of “them”. And the relationship between us and them can often become antagonistic, violent even. That’s why football fans and religious believers can come to blows with each other. And these blows are often used to justify the liberal case for rational rather than pre-rational commitments. But rational solidarity is often a thin and bloodless connection, a theoretical bond without passion.

The antagonistic relationship between us and them, though, is often considerably overdrawn — sometimes deliberately. In the next few weeks, European nations will fly their flags, play their anthems, and compete with each other on the football field. I will cheer for England, but I know we probably won’t win. This is important. My commitment to the English team, like my commitment to the place of my birth, is not based on any sort of belief that we are better than others. Patriotism doesn’t have to be infused with a sense of superiority. There are better teams out there.

What rationalists don’t understand is that pre-rational believers or supporters, even if they have a different faith or a different team, have more in common with each other than they do with those who seek to distribute their commitments in the court of reason. Lord Glasman and I will go for a drink, I will have fun trash talking Spurs, and he will trash talk Chelsea, and we will have a thoroughly good time. We are more respectful of our different faiths, but we acknowledge our differences, and respect each other for having them. It’s an ecumenical matter, as Fr Ted put it.

Football is a world faith not because it seeks to eradicate all differences in some kind of meaningless Esperanto of togetherness, but precisely because it allows our differences to be celebrated. Here are the tribes of the world, little platoons of togetherness, all worshiping their different gods, but brought together in a festival of talent and beauty. The theological term for this is henotheism: the worship of the one true god — a god that wears blue, obviously — that does not deny the existence of other gods.