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  • Mike

Whisper a prayer at half-time

Many people will be breathing a small sigh of relief today. It is the first time in 15 days that there has not been wall-to-wall coverage of the World Cup football tournament in Russia. Not only actual football matches but endless slow-motion replays of controversial moments, frame-by-frame video-refereeing, endless match analysis, assessments of players’ hairstyles, etc, etc.

For those who are not aficionados, half of the 736 World Cup players are on their way home with no further part to play, as I write. If you are counting the days, then there are only 16 games to go and Monday 16 July is the day when the ‘cathedrals’ will empty, the chants will die away, and sanity will be restored.

But there are some matters of interest for those who do not find the games themselves compelling. I have been interested to see a religious dimension to the proceedings. Or ‘semi-religious’? For a start there’s the ‘choral’ singing and chanting. Individually, many of the players cross themselves and touch the ground before they enter the field of play. Some from Muslim countries uninhibitedly go through a brief prayer ritual. A number of players have knelt down in the middle of the pitch before the game, before the watching millions, and prayed, hoping that their team will get ‘the rub of the green’. Others have been seen to be mouthing prayers before a decisive penalty kick. After scoring goals, many players look skyward as if to thank God for - for what? - directing the ball between the posts? The manager and all members of the team offering a compassionate hand to a substituted player as he withdraws from the field of conflict. These, and other rituals that players go through are akin to religious observance

It’s easy to dismiss all of this as mere superstition – like always putting your left boot on before your right. Is it all simply a massive act of superstitious self-indulgence?

For those of us who are observant Christians there may be lessons to learn. We all too often fall into the trap of believing that God is somehow on our side and thus against those who wear a different colour shirt. Sometimes our prayer practices verge on the superstitious, our characterisations of ‘the opposing team’ verge on caricature and personal hostility. And perhaps most familiarly of all, as a group, we tend to be over-focused on ‘results’.

From players and fans, perhaps we can learn from the extensive commitment on show. Some fans acts of financial self-sacrifice to support ‘our’ team. Despite all the cynical and nasty play, there is among some players a real spirit of camaraderie, a sense that above all the results, it is the ‘Beautiful Game’ which matters. I wonder if I am always so committed to the ‘Beautiful Christian Game.’

For those of you not convinced by my apology for FIFA Russia 2018 the good news is that 75% of the games are already played and the end of this particular world is on July 15 – only 16 days now.

But if you believe what Jesus said, as I do, that the Spirit of God is at work in the most unlikely places, in all sorts of people, in unexpected ways, you will believe that even in this massive, contrived spectacle, maybe some answers are ‘blowin’ in the wind’.

And who will the winner be? That’s obvious. Mr Putin. And maybe Spain. But I shall be just as interested to hold up the proceedings as a mirror to my own religious practices.

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