Christopher Smith looks forward to the World Cup —the football one, that is

Every other year, the tranquility of the cricket season is intruded upon by one of football’s brash international tournaments. This year, it’s the turn of the World Cup, which will kick off on the 12th of this month with the host nation, Brazil, playing Croatia. England’s first game is on the 14th, against Italy. You probably knew that already, and have prepared yourself for the 11pm kick-off by ordering in some extra-strong coffee, or some extra-strong beer. You probably also know, in your heart of hearts, that Brazil will eventually win the competition.

But did you know that the cup itself, the trophy for which two teams will eventually play on 13th July, has been on tour? As part of the preparation for the current competition, it has been taken to visit all the participating nations.

It was in this country in mid-March, where it was flown secretly into Southend, then went to be unveiled in a shopping centre in London and outside Asda in Manchester.

I mention this as it has led me, not for the first time, to ponder how sport in general, and football in particular, has become such an important substitute for religion for so many people. Much has been written on the subject, of course, and any observer would be a fool to try to point out that football doesn’t actually matter. Liverpool drew 3-3 with Crystal Palace recently, and so great was the team’s distress that you might have thought a terrible accident had occurred. Steven Gerrard was on the verge of tears, but bravely went to comfort Luis Suarez, who had pulled his shirt up over his face in the way that small children do while they still believe that if they cover their own eyes, nobody can see them. Gerrard shooed the cameras away from him as if protecting a bereaved friend from intrusive media scrutiny. ‘We just want to be left alone to get on with our lives,’ might have been the statement issued through their solicitor.

I must admit, I was quite pleased for Crystal Palace, as I watched them claw three goals back from their more illustrious opponents, having lived round the corner from Selhurst Park for ten years while I was in South London. But of course, they’d put paid to any real likelihood that Liverpool would overtake Manchester City in the race for the Premiership title, and now it’s all over.

Football fans can now look forward to the World Cup, even if they missed out on the experience of seeing the trophy when it toured the UK. A friend of mine, though, did see it, in one of those parts of the Empire that never wanted to leave, and so is nowadays called a British Overseas Territory. In fact, it is the only place where the population has rebelled because they wanted to remain part of the Empire, rather than be an independent nation in the Commonwealth.

And so the World Cup, which, of course, isn’t a cup at all, arrived in Anguilla, observed by my friend, who was out there visiting family. It was received by the Queen’s representative, and it quickly became clear that its presence was surrounded by ceremony of an almost liturgical feel. It is made of solid gold, and so security is an issue, but my ‘mole was under the impression that the privilege of handling it was reserved to the head of state (or, in the case of Anguilla, her representative, the Governor). It arrived for its period of exposition under a cloth cover, which was lifted off by two luminaries of Anguillan football. This revealed the trophy within a Perspex box, which was solemnly removed next by an official acting as deacon. The Governor then held it aloft for the people to adore, and, after benediction, it was solemnly recovered. The fans were in ecstasy, having their quasi-religious experience. Sadly, however, Anguilla did not make it through the qualifiers, having only ever won two international football matches, against the British Virgin Islands and Monserrat.

And so our televisions will be filled for the duration of the World Cup with the sight of faces full of emotion: emotion that takes the appearance of the full gamut, from agony to ecstasy. Stories will emerge that will take priority on the news bulletins, just as the sacking of the manager of Manchester United Football Club was regarded by the British media as the most important thing to be happening in the world. But, truth to tell, it wasn’t.

Nor was it tremendously important that a youth team playing a rugby match in Hertfordshire were losing 64-5, but a father watching his teenage son lose thought it was important enough to stick his foot over the touchline to trip a boy who was about to score another try for the winning side. Not only was it dangerous and fruitless, it also seemed like a particularly egregious case of setting a bad example. Sport matters, but it needs to remain sporting!

Somehow, we have to get our priorities better ordered. And we like to think that we know the answer. The Christian faith is the answer. Get your priorities right, and go to church a bit more, and to the terraces a bit less. Remember where salvation is really to be found. But let’s not be too smug. Lets ask ourselves just how much we put what we believe into the practice of our daily lives. He who has found God still has God to find; as Austin Farrer once said. Oh, and by the way, that cricket match against the Vatican is still on, I’m told!