A rise in Premier League piety?
Musa Okwonga asks what's behind football's on-pitch displays of devotion
On 21 January 2012, Clint Dempsey’s third goal for Fulham against Newcastle was notable for two reasons. First, it marked the first time that an American had scored a hat-trick in the Premier League. Second, the celebration that accompanied the clinching strike in a 5-2 victory was accompanied by a show of spiritual thanks, Dempsey crossing his chest and then looking to the heavens. We’d seen something similar a couple of years earlier, on 30 April 2008. On that day, following the untimely death of his mother from pneumonia, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard celebrated a crucial Champions League penalty against Liverpool by raising both hands to the sky, where he hoped that his mother would be watching. More recently, Venky’s – the Indian poultry company who own Blackburn Rovers – commissioned an advert that featured Blackburn players huddled together in the dressing-room, crossing themselves fervently before having a ceremonial pre-match meal of fried chicken. What was this, a religious revolution among the world’s best-paid players?
Well, no: not really. There have always been subtle manifestations of faith in football. Perhaps unsurprisingly, footballers from other countries are somewhat more extrovert. Most famously, there’s Brazil and Real Madrid’s Kaka, who when he won the Champions League with AC Milan in 2007 jogged along the pitch wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “I Belong To Jesus”. Meanwhile, we Brits are not that demonstrative a people, and so when it comes to displays of religious conviction we are no different. This low-key approach is typified by Chris Powell, the softly spoken former England left-back and current Charlton Athletic manager, who remarked in 2006 that his belief in God “gives me a sort of inner-peace, a sort of well-being. I live my life for this way, and that’s because of the Lord and what has happened, and what he done to save me, and save everyone. It gives me a great joy to know that the Lord is around me at all times, and I can pray for things whether it is good or bad that’s happened in my football career.”
In that vein, a Premier League club where you might have seen a few players engaged in quiet pre-match prayer was Portsmouth FC a couple of years ago, where Linvoy Primus, Sean Davis and others were committed Christians (who have subsequently gone on to found Faith and Football, an organisation which works with young people in local communities). They’re the most well-known, but by no means an isolated example: several clubs have team chaplains, one of whom, Leicester City’s Bruce Nadin, recently left the UK to start a football-based rehabilitation programme in a South African prison.
None of this should come as any particular surprise. In a game where many players have to face almost overwhelming odds before even making it into the professional ranks, it makes sense that many of them would seek out the support of a higher power. On that note, Frank Lampard’s relationship with the Almighty is somewhat more ambivalent than it appears at first glance. “If anyone asked me if I believed in God I always said yes, but I never did much about it. And then when [his mother died], that changed. I have tried to find reasons, I have gone to church,” he told the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel. “I’m quite a cynical b****** really. I’ll have days when I think she is up there looking down on me and others when I’m thinking, no she isn’t, she isn’t anywhere, she’s gone.” Despite that cynicism, though, Lampard now has a pre-match routine of his own. “I have a moment when I pray in the tunnel before games now,” he revealed in the same interview. Lampard’s approach, where someone who is essentially secular seeks out religious respite, is a common one throughout football. In a world of rapidly changing fates, where league titles can be decided upon a whim, it is natural that, for so many fans, faith will take the place of cold logic.