• Paul Coulter

Five reasons I don’t like football

Updated: Nov 19


Please note – this post is deliberately provocative – please read to the end before getting too annoyed with anything I say in it.


In a couple of days’ time the 2022 FIFA World Cup will kick off in Qatar. The media hype in the run up to the competition has focused on questions about Qatar’s treatment of people who identify as LGBT. Less attention has been paid to the poor conditions for migrant workers, especially those working in construction, in the Gulf state. I have heard nothing at all about the persecution of Christians in a nation which does not recognise conversion from Islam and so does not allow Muslim-background believers in Jesus to marry non-Muslims and threatens converts with imprisonment or worse. Despite all of these issues, the United Kingdom has close ties with Qatar. The Qatari royal family owns billions of pounds of property here as well as shares in major British companies such as Sainsbury’s. Britain, meanwhile, supports the development of Qatar’s military as a possible buffer against more hostile states in the region.


But the purpose of this post is not to rant against Western hypocrisy. That might ruffle a few feathers among readers, but I am going to do something much more controversial. I am declaring my distaste for football. Or more specifically, for Association Football – what the Americans call soccer. I don’t think this is just an expression of a chipped shoulder because I was no good at football in primary school (I used to call myself an ‘on-pitch spectator’). I have five better reasons:

1. The dynamic of the game

2. The behaviour of players and fans

3. The money, fame and fanaticism

4. The effect on families and communities

5. The wider concept of competitive team sports


1. The dynamic of the game

In what sport other than soccer do games regularly end in goalless draws? This doesn’t happen in any of the other versions of football – rugby (league or union), American or Gaelic. Either there is something wrong with the design of the game or with the way people play it, or both.


My soccer watching friends tell me I’m missing the point because the skill and entertainment lies not only in goals but in how the ball is moved around the pitch. But a goal is called a goal for a reason. The point of the game is to score goals. If that hasn’t happened, something is wrong. If it doesn’t happen regularly, the dynamic of the game is flawed.


In short, the first reason I don’t like soccer is because better sports are available.


2. The behaviour of players and fans

In fairness to soccer players, this issue is not confined to their sport alone. Any time crowds of people get together, especially when alcohol is in the mix and the crowds are divided into two opposing groups, things are likely to go wrong. Yet it does seem that soccer crowds have a particular tendency to bad behaviour. Maybe that’s just because they tend to be bigger, but I find it hard to appreciate a game that is surrounded by so much racism, bigotry, swearing, drunkenness and low level street brawling.


The behaviour of players troubles me too. In what other sport is it seen as honourable to cheat? Yet it seems to be expected that players will dive and exaggerate injuries in order to get a penalty. It is almost comical to watch them rolling on the ground in apparent agony, clutching their (padded) shins, only to be up and bouncing again as soon as the ref makes his call. Then there is the behaviour off the pitch. I know there are some examples of footballers who have done good things in society, but these are few and far between. Most of the supposed ‘role models’ are anything but when it comes to their private (or not-so-private) lives.


In short, the second reason I struggle with soccer is the weight of sin that surrounds it.


3. The money, fame and fanaticism

One of the main reasons for the bad behaviour of professional footballers is the amount of money they receive. I know that is only true of top flight clubs, but the levels of pay are frankly obscene. Combine this with fame and young men – and increasingly women too as the female game develops – are bound to be led astray. The whole system corrupts people. I would go as far as to say that I struggle with the very idea of a professional sports person, even if salaries were at a more modest level. Is it really a job to play a game? Should sports not be for recreation – an ‘amateur’ pursuit in the true sense of the word (for the love of it)? Should a career not achieve something lasting and contribute more to the world than mere entertainment? Yet this sport encourages young people to aspire to be nothing more than a player of a game.


If the effect of the football industry on the players can be toxic, I think its effect on fans can be even worse. Remember that fan is short for fanatic. We don’t usually think of fanaticism as a positive thing in the modern world. It implies a degree of unhinged wildness. Something that isn’t entirely rational. That is certainly my experience of football fans. They get so excited about men they will never meet, often playing for a team based in a city they have no connection with, kicking a ball around a pitch. They think their shouting at the screen and wearing the colours can actually influence the outcome of the game (or they act like they believe it). They care deeply about the fortunes of a club that is actually a business profiting off them. Even in moments of awareness of this fact they tend to blame the owners rather than realising the system itself is corrupt. It is hard to see this level of engagement as anything less than worship.


In short, my third reason for disliking soccer is the idolatry it feeds.


4. The effect on families and communities

This reason follows closely from the previous one. If I am right in saying that football fanaticism is a form of idolatry, then it is bound to have a deep impact on those who indulge in it. Perhaps it is possible to be a fan of a club in a less deeply engaged sense – I want to be fair if I can – but it seems that mild supporters have to fight hard against the lure of caring a little too much about their club or its star striker. Why let oneself care at all about football (or any sport for that matter) if it could become a slippery slope to idolatry? Can some people enjoy the sport without making idols? Even if they can, might they be causing others to stumble if they talk too much about it? Certainly, I think many people (mostly men in my experience, but not only) allow soccer or other sports to have an undue prominence in their lives. It becomes detrimental to their other commitments, especially to their families. Is it not a tragedy when a man neglects quality time with his wife or children because he is glued to a screen or waving a scarf in a stadium?


It is not only families who are neglected by soccer fans. Other communities suffer too. Support for one soccer team over another is a deeply divisive influence in communities. Many cities have two rival teams with different colours and communities loyal to one or the other. On a bigger scale and especially pervasive in Northern Ireland, some teams are allied with one religious community, adding another layer to what divides. Sectarianism is a horrible beast and football can feed it. My greatest concern, however, is with the way football impacts the commitment of young men to churches. Too often the dates and times of the matches become the most important fixture in their calendar. They will miss prayer meetings, outreach events and other church events because of a match.


In short, my fourth objection is that football is a massive distraction from more important things.


5. The wider concept of competitive team sports

If I am right in seeing soccer as a distraction from weightier matters, then you may well be saying, “Is that not true of every sport?” And you would be right. Again I want to have some semblance of balance here. I do think recreation is good. I recognise the value of physical fitness and the importance of exercise in an age when we do not naturally use our bodies for weight bearing tasks in our everyday work. I can also see the pleasure that comes from playing together with a team and from winning a game. I do not want to say that all games are bad or that sports always corrupt. But I do think that competitive team sports can be harmful and I wonder if the world wouldn’t be a better place had they never been invented. That might seem hard to imagine, but actually the history of such sports is not long. Most of the major ones are products of the British Empire and especially of the Public School system that fed the Empire with its leaders. Competitive team sports like cricket, soccer and rugby were all codified as ways to train people for war and conquest.


“But”, you may say, “isn’t it better to play sports than to fight wars? Can’t sport be a means to global harmony?” I cannot deny that some people make an effort around major sporting events to foster good international relations, but it seems to me that the major driver in the big tournaments is the pursuit of national pride in comparison to other nations. Who topped the medal table? Who lifted the trophy? The strange mix of cooperation (within the team) and competition (against the other team) in team sports can be especially alluring. We fool ourselves into thinking we are learning to work together, when in fact the great goal is to defeat the opposition. I tend to think that is never a good goal. Competitiveness is a big topic and this is not the place to discuss whether it may have its uses (for example in business). Suffice to say for now that I think we have more than enough of it in this world and we don’t need sports to add more. Why did we ever think that our spaces of ‘leisure’, rather than being escape from the competitive spheres of education and employment, are best used in competitive sports? Is that really the best thing for our souls? I find this even more troubling when people think sports are a good way to do youth ministry (“They all love football, so let’s get them playing it and then talk to them about Jesus”) or evangelism (“Let’s watch the game together and then talk about Jesus”). If competitive team sports imperil souls (perhaps too strongly put, I know!), how can they be a helpful prelude to sharing Jesus? Unless, of course, we only do it so we can say, “Now you’ve seen what sin does, here’s the answer”. But dabbling with sin alongside non-believers then talking to them about salvation doesn’t seem the best way to evangelise. And designing youth programmes in a way that may work for most kids, especially the strong and fit ones, is hardly the gospel way to do it.


In short, my fifth concern with soccer is that it encourages competitiveness and rivalry.


Conclusion

In closing, I feel like I should apologise for this post. That is partly because I realise I have been deliberately provocative. When blogging, I usually try to avoid expressing my personal opinions and preferences forcefully. It is possible that’s what I’ve done in this piece. Even though I’ve peppered it with the odd “I’m trying to be fair”, I know I have probably said some things a little too strongly or have focused too much on the negatives. If that has offended you, please forgive me. I do have friends – some of them very good friends – who are into football, and I don’t think they are all mad or sinners. I hope I don’t lose their friendship because of this article. Indeed, some of them are much finer examples of godliness than me. Perhaps they have a greater resoluteness that keeps them from falling into any dangers soccer brings than I could have.


Yet there is another reason why I feel like apologising, which is less positive. As a man who does not like football, I feel under a huge social pressure. In primary school, that pressure caused me to declare myself a Spurs supporter. Everyone else seemed to support either Man United or Liverpool (although none of them were from either city), so I had to find a third way. In the era of Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle, Spurs seemed a decent choice. I sometimes call myself a ‘lapsed Spurs supporter’ when people ask me now what team I support. In truth, I was never truly a fan of any team. Yet I feel abnormal in saying that. It should not be so, I am certain.


So, please see past any offence this piece has caused to consider whether some of my points might have some validity. And if you are a football fan, spare a thought for those of us on the outside. Let’s not let sport divide us and let’s keep our priorities focused on God’s glory and his kingdom.

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