The Religious History of the Premier League
The Christian origins of a sport that now functions like its own faith
The English Premier League kicks off its 2022-2023 season today, with a London derby between Crystal Palace and Arsenal. So I thought I’d update a 2019 post from The Anxious Bench to celebrate the occasion…
At some point in the last few years, (global) football surpassed basketball and hockey to join (American) football as my favorite non-baseball sports. It wasn’t a conversion experience, exactly, but I can trace my newfound love of soccer back to two consecutive nights in May 2019, when two clubs from England’s Premier League — Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool — mounted comebacks that weren’t just miraculous, but illustrated two different ways we can examine the relationship between religion and the world’s most popular sport.
For my money, the greater semifinal miracle came from Tottenham Hotspur. After losing the first leg of its match with Dutch powerhouse Ajax 1-0 then giving up two first half goals in Amsterdam, it seemed that Spurs were destined to fall short of the Champions League finals.1 But Brazilian winger Lucas Moura sent his club through on the away goal tiebreaker by scoring a second half hat trick, the last of his three goals coming in the last seconds of stoppage time.
“I do not believe it,” yelled the astonished Spurs announcer after watching soccer’s version of a buzzer-beater. But after the match, an emotional Moura told reporters that he had never lost faith:
God is wonderful. I always say that he surprises me. I always believed it was possible [to win]. After the first half, when we were losing 2-0, I believed we could reverse the result. And I was praying to God, and he gave me this amazing game.
Moura grew up as a non-observant Catholic but experienced a renewed religious commitment just before transferring to Tottenham. Later that night, he reminded his 4 million Instagram followers that “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37).
American sports fans are accustomed to their favorites sharing Bible verses on social media and naming God in post-game interviews, but Moura plays in a decidedly post-Christian part of the world. Not only does a majority of the British population seldom or never attend worship, but even a quarter of those who identify as Christian say they don’t believe in God. There are Premiership stars who are publicly religious, but most come from the Global South — or their parents or grandparents did.
So it’s easy to forget that Tottenham Hotspur was founded by a Bible teacher who likely would have been as thrilled by Moura’s religiosity as his scoring touch.
I learned that historical detail while reading Gods, Games, and Globalization, several of whose essays observe how (in the editors’ description) “self-identified religious adherents and institutions… have used sports in traditional religious contexts, often to their own ends.” In the opening piece, Irish theologian Kevin Hargaden notes that Tottenham is one of fourteen current and former Premiership clubs that originated as Christian ministries.
In 1883, John Ripsher became president and treasurer of the Hotspur Football Club, made up of boys from two local schools. Ripsher not only taught at All Hallows Church, but was the warden of the local chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The club’s history says little more of Ripsher and his motives, but Hargaden frames the Christian origins of such sporting associations as “legacies of a more pervasive Christian commitment to sports as a means of forming virtue and encouraging discipleship.” Victorian age YMCA workers like Ripsher sought to cultivate “muscular Christians” who (in Donald E. Hall’s summary) “combined physical strength, religious certainty, and the ability to shape and control the world around oneself.” It was hard not to think of that theological legacy as Lucas Moura both thanked God and praised Tottenham as a “team of fighters” in his post-match interview.
But the “regime of Christendom that Victorian churches assumed and actively sustained is gone,” Hargaden concludes — and celebrates, for British Christians are now “freed to no longer be relevant.” He hopes that the faithful will “[redirect] their enthusiasms from the business of Premier League fandom” and use local sports to help repair “their social fabric worn thin through decades of neoliberal policies” — like those that made Premiership owners (and players) so wealthy.
While we hold our breath for that outcome, let’s turn to the second miraculous Champions League semifinal in May 2019, featuring an even richer, more successful club that also grew out of a Victorian ministry…
Liverpool lost its first leg 3-0 on goals by Barcelona’s South American superstars, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. But despite losing Egyptian striker Mo Salah2 to a concussion in a Premiership match between the two European legs, Liverpool scored four unanswered goals at Anfield to win on aggregate. They went on to defeat Tottenham 2-0, claiming their sixth European championship.
I thought of the images and sounds of that night as I read Rebecca Alpert and Art Remillard’s introduction to the Gods, Games, and Globalization collection. While they acknowledged that some historians of religion continue to “[document] how institutional religions have made use of sports through history,” they had far more to say about how scholars like David Chidester have sought “traces of transcendence, the sacred, and the ultimate” in sports like soccer:
In other words, sports are not religions in the same way as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism; however, they can do real religious work—binding together communities, elevating heroes, producing sacred objects, and manufacturing mythical stories and memories.
By that definition, what’s still called “The Anfield Miracle” sure seemed to be “[doing] real religious work,” even if the current version of the club — though managed by one avowed Christian and featuring another in goal — looks little like the one that started in a Methodist chapel in 1878.3 I’d like to think that a more localized, less monetized version of soccer would help spark a post-Christendom renewal of Christianity, but why would the tens of thousands of Liverpool supporters at Anfield and the millions watching on TVs and tablets want to give up the community they already have, with its own heroes and myths and traces of the transcendent?
Such religious communities even produce their own liturgies. Some are more obviously post-Christian, as when fans at Wembley Stadium sing the first and last verses of the Victorian hymn “Abide with Me” before the final of the F.A. Cup.4 More typical is what you saw at the end of the “Anfield Miracle” clip above, where Liverpool players and fans joined voices after the match to sing a song that is both secular and (to them) holy, the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
That same ritual features in the first episode of Amazon’s This Is Football documentary, which tells how shared love of Liverpool football helped bring together a group of Rwandans after the 1994 genocide. The episode, which closes with what can only be called a pilgrimage to Anfield, is titled, simply, “Redemption.”
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Quick explanation: if a Premier League team finishes its season in the top four, it gets to compete the following season in a lucrative tournament called the Champions League, against the best teams from Germany, Spain, Italy, France, and other European countries. Those matches are usually played Tuesday or Wednesday, with domestic league fixtures on the weekends.
An observant Muslim who named his first child after Mecca and celebrates goals by praying, Mohamed Salah is so beloved among Liverpool supporters that one study credited his popularity with reducing anti-Muslim speech and hate crimes in that part of England. Earlier this summer he signed a contract extension that will keep him in Liverpool until 2025.
Technically, that chapel actually gave rise to another club called Everton… which spawned Liverpool in 1892 after an ownership dispute. Would it be cruel of me to mention that the present-day manifestation of Everton came to St. Paul last month on a summer tour and promptly lost 4-0 to Minnesota United with my son and me there to cheer on the Loons?
England’s oldest domestic tournament, the F.A. (Football Association) Cup includes hundreds of teams from the Premiership on down to semi-pro leagues. Last year Liverpool won their eighth cup, the same number as Spurs — who haven’t been back to the final since winning in 1991.