Let down again?

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So, the inevitable has happened, albeit earlier than expected. England’s footballers have been knocked out of the 2014 World Cup before they’ve even played their third group game, their earliest exit since 1958. And, as sure as night follows day, the hand wringing, recriminations and angst filled soul-searching has taken over the English media to the extent that you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole tournament came to a close upon the final whistle at Costa Rica’s shock win over Italy.

The reaction has been as measured and rational as a member of Britain First outside a mosque. Or a member of Britain First in any other situation either. Some of the phrases used would suggest that something serious was at stake, such as lives or jobs or homes, rather than a competition for young men kicking a ball around.

“They have let us down”

“They are overpaid prima donnas who don’t care”

“More years of hurt”

This is typical of the ridiculous overreaction to anything surrounding “the beautiful game”. Defeats are a “tragedy”, winners are “heroes”, players are held up as “brave”, “geniuses” and “role models”.

We need to get a grip. I’m a football fan. I love the game and I am guilty of this type of language or responsible myself. But we really need to take a good look at ourselves over this.

How has anybody “let us down”? England’s exit will not adversely affect the lives of anybody. Not even those who were part of squad, who will go back to their clubs and prepare for the new season as normal. Nothing of any real note was riding on the World Cup, life will carry on as normal. Nobody has been “let down” as the players had no responsibility towards any of us in the first place.

Now, the accusation often comes in that footballers let people down because they are role models for children. I find this very interesting. Why would we want men who are mainly in their early to mid 20s, who are in their position because of how good they are at a game rather than how good they are as human beings, to be role models for our children? Is this what they signed up for, or is their only real focus to be a good footballer? If your child has footballers as their role models then it may not be a bad idea to encourage them to look up to other people for their character rather than their skill with a ball.

Of course footballers are massively overpaid. That’s hardly their fault, though. Let me ask you, if a competitor of the firm you work for offered you £100k per week to do your job, would you turn it down? Would you say “No, that’s obscene. I couldn’t possibly accept that.”? Of course not. Nobody would.

Similarly, nobody would, as a result of those wages, suddenly stop trying at their job. Look at the faces of the players at the end of the Uruguay defeat, they were devastated. They didn’t wear the expressions of men who didn’t care. They cared deeply, because it’s their job. It’s utterly ridiculous to suggest that they didn’t care.

There also tends to be a lot of criticism of footballers when it comes to the issue of pressure. I have seen many posts online where footballers are compared to members of the armed forces when the issue of pressure (and, for that matter, pay) is mentioned. The reasoning is that footballers don’t know what pressure is because they don’t face the prospect of death when they go out to play. Well, no they don’t.  Neither do the vast majority of people. However, most people don’t face the prospect of every move they make at work being scrutinised at length in front of millions on national tv. Most people don’t have every mistake at work analysed in national newspapers. Most people don’t have hundreds of people tearing their performance apart on radio phone ins or getting abuse by thousands on social media for it. I think that if we did face all of those things at work then we’d feel under immense pressure, no matter how much money we earned.

Footballers are human beings. They are flawed, make mistakes, feel the full range of emotions, have good days and bad days, have the same worries and insecurities as everyone else. We need to recognise this and act accordingly towards them.

“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another.” (Galatians 5:24-26 NLT)

This is what we all need to do. We are all flawed. You, me and every member of England’s World Cup squad. Looking down on people, getting angry at them, displaying jealousy towards them, heaping pressure on them is not right. So they play football for a living and get paid millions for it. So what? It has no effect on me or you that they do this, so just leave them to do it. Good luck to them, but they are not where all my hope lies. If they win I’ll be happy, if they lose I’ll be disappointed. That’s it, nothing more.

Lent Day 36: John 13-14

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When I was at school I played football (soccer, for those who think football is an egg-shaped ball game) in the playground nearly every lunch break. Sometimes it was on concrete with a tennis ball, sometimes on the playing fields with a football. We played as closely to the proper rules of football as we could, but with three noticeable differences.

Firstly, we had no pitch markings. I went to a boys’ grammar school which didn’t actually play football as a school sport, we played rugby (no, I’m really not as posh as that makes me sound). We had some rough markings we could use on the concrete tennis courts, but on grass it was impossible. This meant that determining when the ball went over the line for a corner, goal-kick or even a goal was always a matter of argument. Throw ins just didn’t happen, there was seemingly infinite width to the pitches.

Secondly, jumpers for goalposts. I know that there are people who hear that phrase and are instantly transported back to their childhoods. In truth, we usually used schoolboys. This meant that judging if the ball was wide or not was tough. And as for shots over the crossbar, the rule of thumb was that the crossbar was as high as whoever was in goal could jump with their arms outstretched.

Thirdly, no offside. Now, if you don’t know the offside rule in football I am not about to try to explain it. Suffice to say that, without linesman at the sides of the pitch, offside would have been impossible to police.

This last rule led to me taking up my specialist position. The position of all kids for who being in defence or goal was a liability and midfield was pointless due to a lack of running or tackling skills. I wasn’t a marauding full-back, wizard on the wing or a typical English centre-forward. No, I was a goalhanger. My job was to stand close to the opposition goal, hoping for the ball to break outfield to give me a chance to score.

It’s a position you won’t find in the Premier League, or anywhere else who play to the official Laws of the Game, because you are always offside, so it’s pointless.

In fact, goalhanging is a huge reason for the offside rule being there in the first place. Goalhanging spoils the game as a spectacle, is quite inspiring and encourages those with little or no ability (like me) think they’re better than they are. In short, offside is a rule which irritates, confuses and frustrates, but is there for the good of the Game. It makes the Game fairer and more enjoyable.

The same goes for God’s laws, as taught with such clarity through Jesus. The commandments he gives to us are simple, some would say common sense commands which we don’t need to be told. Loving, respecting, helping others are all things which we “instinctively” know, as are most of his other commands.

They’re not so easy, though, when we’re told not to judge, to love our enemy, to put others before ourselves. Even the supposedly common-sense, instinctive ones seem beyond each of us on occasions, and beyond some most of the time.

Why? Because sometimes we don’t want to follow them. Sometimes our immediate reaction to events is selfishness, vengeance, anger or greed. Following Jesus commands feel far from instinctive, more like hugely inconvenient and restrictive.

But they are there for a reason. Like the offside rule stopping useless cloggers like me barely get by flourish on the football field and, instead, helping football be more like the “beautiful game”, so Jesus commandments do that in life. They curb selfish impulses in order to make life on Earth better for all of us.

It’s not about controlling masses or gaining power over them, it’s about really living life. That’s why, if we love him, we will keep his commandments and help others to do so as well.

No matter how hard that may be.

Lent Day 16: Mark 7-9

The other day I was watching football on the telly. It was Manchester United v Liverpool, a game which, for Liverpool fans like myself, is one of the biggest games of the year. For the first time in years Liverpool went into the game ahead of United in the league. Not just ahead, but a massive 11 points clear and as the form team in the country. Pundits were queuing up to predict a comfortable Liverpool win, despite the fact that they hadn’t won away against United in five years.

And yet, I was pessimistic. I could see that form counts for very little in games like this. I envisaged United suddenly turning their season around and coming good with a big win. I could see a nightmare for Liverpool.

Then, my kids pointed out that I always do this. I always look pessimistically on situations (unlike the tablet I’m typing this on, which just tried autocorrecting “pessimistically” to “optimistically”!). I’m always being all doom and gloom and never believing that the best will happen.

It’s true. I think it’s partly to soften the blow of any potential disappointment, but I do this a lot. Not just with football, but with life in general. I wonder if “Murphy’s Law” could be renamed after me sometimes, as I seem to believe so strongly in it.

Then I read these wordsand see, not only myself, but also Jesus’ answer to me.

“Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”  “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”    “ ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”    Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”” (Mark 9:21-24 NIV)

The boy’s father asks Jesus to help him overcome his unbelief. This is what I need, too. I need Jesus to help me overcome my pessimism and believe that things can and will turn out for the best. Even if it seems that it actually has gone wrong, I need to believe that He will make something wonderful out of the ruins.

He does it all the time. He takes broken situations, broken people, broken lives and makes the most wonderful image of humanity, love, compassion, sharing and giving that you can imagine. He has done it with me, and many others I know, so many times in the past that I have no excuse for any unbelief. As he says, “Everything is possible for one who believes.”.

As usual, I was wrong in my pessimism about the football. Liverpool won 3-0 and, frankly, it could have been more. They put in a fantastic performance which United were blown away by.

More importantly, though, God constantly puts in a fantastic performance which we are blown away by. He always comes through, in the end. We just need to believe.

With God you’ll never walk alone.

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