The New Religion of Sport

I can’t say that the British invented competitive sport, but the Victorian schools created a worldwide interest in sport. We invented most of the modern sports, created a structure and codified the games with laws and rules. Sport is at the heart of British society.

A proper fan always supports his own team, but they appreciate a great game. By some football is called the beautiful game. but, all sports when played at their best and at the highest-level offer a window into our souls. That is not hyperbole. Sport can wrench at the heart and soul, build almost tribal loyalty, and unite a society. If you don’t believe my last point think about how England always unite with heady nostalgia around the date 1966.

Last night, I watched such a game of football that lived up to all my hype.

It was the semi-final of the Champion’s League and Liverpool was playing Roma at home. The result was 5-2 to Liverpool but that doesn’t tell half the tale.

In parts of the first half and the start of the second, we saw Liverpool and Mohammed Salah, in particular, run the sort of riot you only see on streets where the goalposts are piles of jumpers and the ball is old and scarred.

At this level of sport, you can only run riot when you have great players playing at their very best and that was Liverpool tonight. Their front three players, Salah, Firmino and Mane are among the fastest and most skilful of all players and when they use all their talents the outcome is often a goal. And so it was tonight.

I don’t want to make this a report on the game. There will be plenty of coverage in the papers and on the internet but great sport pulls at all the emotions. After Liverpool stretched to what seemed like an unassailable 5-0 lead, Roma, against all the odds scored twice, late in the game, to make the second leg a potentially absorbing affair, next week, in the Holy City.

I have played sport and the intensity of the game makes it difficult to understand its beauty. If you are winning it just seems easy and if you are losing to a great side there is far too much stress to recognise the quality of the opposition.

It was only when Ben started to play rugby that I was able to appreciate the full beauty in sport. It was then that I started to see the patterns of play and their intricacies. Of course, I wanted whichever team Ben was playing for to win but at the same time not only could I enjoy great individual performances but applaud great team play.

Individuals are the inspiration for a team but seeing a team perform at its best is always much better. Sport is played at a pace and it doesn’t matter how much you practice that set of circumstances is always new. The team must adapt and change in the face of what is in front of them. They need to read each other’s minds. They need to anticipate, manoeuvre, show courage and stay resilient.

It was Simon Barnes who suggested that sport has replaced traditional religions. We now watch more than we play, and we pray at the great stadiums praising our teams and new saints. And so it was tonight at Liverpool. The team showed all the flair to excite and then showed all the human flaws to allow Roma to score two late goals.

Sport is a metaphor for life which is why the Victorians pushed it so hard. They saw sport as a training ground for life. It doesn’t matter if fewer of us now play sport and many more watch and it doesn’t matter if it is football, rugby or all the Olympic sports, we have found a new church. It is that important.