Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Pray for Muamba: has football found its religious voice?

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Fabrice Muamba is in intensive care
after collapsing during Bolton's FA
Cup match at Tottenham
The on-pitch collapse of the Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba, who suffered cardiac arrest during his team's FA Cup quarter final match at Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, has prompted a wave of sympathy from both within and beyond the football world. Shocked by the fact that an apparently healthy elite athlete can can collapse so suddenly at the age of 23, fellow professionals, supporters and the wider public have rallied to offer their best wishes, and at the time of writing the signs appear to be positive, with Muamba breathing on his own and responding to questions from doctors and visitors.

To a non-religious observer, one thing that stands out is the role of faith in the response to Muamba's collapse. The player and his fiancée Shauna Magunda, who took to Twitter to tell followers that "every prayer makes him stronger", are themselves religious, as is Muamba's manager Owen Coyle, but what of the other players, and the thousands, perhaps even millions of well-wishers who have added their voices to calls to pray for the midfielder's recovery?

In the current issue of New Humanist, Musa Okwonga, who writes about sport for the Independent, takes a look at the role of faith in football, and points out that acts of religion have long been a common sight at matches. While some players, such as Real Madrid's Kaka, are well-known for their strong religious beliefs, Okwonga suggests that many on-pitch displays of devotion are not driven by such firm doctrinal convictions. In a game where "many players have to face almost overwhelming odds before even making it into the professional ranks", and so much is determined by chance, often "faith will take the place of cold logic", and thus casual superstitions pervade the beautiful game.

So how are we to read the widespread use of religious language in response to Muamba's plight? While many well-wishers will indeed be deeply religious, it seems unlikely that the wider constituency of players and fans, or indeed the sportswriters who have run with headlines like "God is in control", have suddenly acquired a devout belief in a monotheistic God. Rather, the reaction is a reminder of the extent to which religious language pervades our culture. While some who actively identify as atheists or humanists might actively steer clear of using language that appeals to a higher power, for most it's simply an automatic response when expressing hope. When something's out of your hands, there's little else that you can do – if you're non-religious and you say you're praying for someone's recovery, you may be displaying a touch of superstition (who doesn't, at some point?) or you may simply be expressing the more worldly wish that the medical care they are receiving will be enough to see them through.

In the end however, the issue of religiosity is beside the point, because the reaction to Fabrice Muamba's collapse tells us something much more important – when millions of people witness a person fall seriously ill as they did on Saturday, the vast majority will care deeply about that person's recovery. That's something in which we can all take pride.

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