Football, faith, and the common good

After the EURO 2020 final, Simon Smart ponders the "religious transformation" taking place in football (and elsewhere) in the UK.

England’s heartbreaking loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final last week pointed to an ugly racism in English football. But it also shone a light on a fascinating shift in the religious profile of the game and the nation. After the scandal, The Guardian wrote glowingly about three black Christian footballers, Buyako Saka, Marcus Rashford, and Raheem Sterling, and the contribution they are making to the national story.

These young men illuminate the “best of their traditions”, with a particular commitment to responsibility to others, wrote the author. Rashford, who was a target of much of the racist abuse, is well known for a recent campaign to offer free meals to poor school children in lockdown. The three players are only the most public faces of a growing presence of believers in glamorous environments more known for fast cars and fast living than faith and devotion.

According to The Guardian, a “religious transformation of sorts” is taking place in football, with an influx of devout players from overseas. “Signs of the cross on the pitch, and hands raised in prayer before games and after goals, are now commonplace.”

That shift echoes a related social change in the UK where, according to a 2020 report by Theos Think Tank, famously secular and liberal London turns out to be, overall, more religious and socially conservative than the rest of the country. Almost two-thirds of people in the capital identify as religious compared with 53% in the rest of UK.

It’s a reminder of the complexity of truly diverse modern cities that encompass pockets of people—many with immigrant backgrounds—with intense and focused religious commitments. Frequently that faith is born out of hardship and a corresponding desire to contribute to their communities. And that’s good news. For everyone.