It is sometimes said that football is like a religion to the English. As the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once half-joked, football is more important than life or death.
Every Sunday, churches are echoingly empty while hundreds of thousands pay large sums to sit in chilly arenas wearing Chinese-made team colors as they cast aspersions on 22 men on a field far below. They make pointed observations about the referee’s inability to see properly or—for the sake of variety—his lack of neutrality, his relative intelligence, and the identities (if known) of his parents.
Footie’s feelers stretch beyond these scornful stadia into millions of Englishmen’s semi-detached castles. Expensive yet cheap-looking sofas bow under the weight of ever sturdier yeomen ingesting lager and crisps while they critique Burundians’ ball control or explain how they would have organized the lineup better than the trained coach.
These vicarious athletes live and breathe their faith between Sundays, too. On occasion they even assault others who prefer red shirts to blue ones, or the other way around. It is not uncommon when passing along England’s green and pleasant motorways to see car-window stickers bearing uplifting legends such as “I hate Man United” or “F**k Liverpool” (without the asterisks). There is an apocryphal but plausible French aphorism to the effect that “To the English, sport is war and war is sport.”
If football is a religion, the extraordinary events surrounding the on-field collapse of Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba during a game against Tottenham Hotspur on March 17 are reminiscent of a revivalist movement. The word ‘revivalist’ is appropriate, because the unlucky Muamba nearly died—his heart stopped for over an hour—out on that appalled pitch, as a never-detected cardiac problem suddenly manifested itself in the most dramatic way.
Luckily, Muamba’s life was saved, and he is starting to make some small recovery—thanks to the speed and professionalism of the staff at the ground and in the London Chest Hospital.
But many believe there is another, deeper explanation—one that lies beyond all this boring science stuff. Perhaps, people whisper, Fabrice is being aided by supernatural forces—as they used to say in Hammer horror films, by “someone—or something!”
Before you interject, “I don’t believe in all that baloney!”—which is always a very dangerous thing to say in horror films—consider the evidence.
The Sun and Star “newspapers” led the people’s paranormal investigation. The Sun and Star are not noted for their piety. Both journals have regrettable reputations for being more interested in portraying underwear than in piercing veils.
It is therefore all the more heartening to record that the sight of the toppled 23-year-old brought out their caring side and elicited some extremely useful observations. After pondering greatly, the Sun doffed its metaphorical baseball cap and concluded at last that “God is in control.” This logic was so magisterial that all the Star could do was echo this beautiful sentiment and acknowledge that the affair was, indeed, now “In God’s Hands.” Whatever the well-meaning medicos did now, it would effectively make no difference, because the whole thing was beyond their control, out of their hands. It was now under the personal purview of a Supreme Being known for taking a personal interest in the beautiful game at least since 1986, when for reasons best known to Himself, He helped Diego Maradona push England out of the World Cup.
There was only one thing now that would make any difference to the young man’s life chances. Chelsea footballer Gary Cahill was among the first to divine what needed to be done—have the words “Pray” and “Muamba” and the numeral 4 printed on a shirt, then show that selfsame shirt to the cameras. Fellow players and viewers soon cottoned on, and within seconds, warm waves of psychic energy were rolling in from all postal districts toward a certain hospital bed in London E9.
The effects were immediate, trumping all that ’round-the-clock intensive care by highly trained personnel. Worried watchers such as his fiancée became slightly less worried as the bombardment of blessings grew in volume and potency:
All your prayers are working people thank u so so much. Every prayer makes him stronger. To God be the glory.
Fabrice has felt every single prayer guys you’ve been INCREDIBLE!!!
The young lady’s strength of feeling is as laudable as it is predictable.
Bolton’s manager Owen Coyle was desperately anxious to see again his comrade’s “fantastic smile” and ensure he doesn’t shuffle off this mortal Coyle:
Everybody is praying for Fabrice, which is very important.
Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore reiterated the industry’s strategy in an interview:
We continue to pray.
The BBC’s Mark Easton asked,“Have you prayed for Fabrice Muamba today?” Easton’s interest was more scholarly—insofar as this area lends itself to rational examination. He referenced Galton’s celebrated 1872 paper Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer—which witheringly found it had none. Galton based his conclusion on the relatively short lives of monarchs, for centuries the chief recipients of the most fervent felicitations. So that he could tick the “balance” box, Easton also politely instanced a 1959 tome The Power of Prayer on Plants by one Franklin Loehr, who found that prayed-for plants did better than non-prayed-for ones—a fortunate finding, or else it might have made Loehr question his calling to the Presbyterian ministry. Easton also cited a 2004 BBC survey suggesting that some 60% of Britons still believe in a deity.
The warmth felt for Fabrice Muamba is genuine, and it does England great credit that so many are so concerned for this stricken stranger. Yet it is also superficial, and very soon the laser beam of love will be recalibrated on another recipient. But while it plays on him, it casts interesting light on England’s essential religiosity, a fact often overlooked in political debates. This impulse may presently be focused on football, but only because England’s impoverished public culture offers so few other outlets for faith. Football fanaticism is real, but it is a substitute for feelings otherwise forbidden to a fallen people.
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