Cultural explosion can spark concerns
I’m not sure that I believe in God. Our family made a point of avoiding religion like a plague of locusts (Exodus 10:1) and, because of that lifestyle choice, you could call me ignorant whenever religion has crept in to my life – like the fact that I had to use Google to check where the plague of locusts is mentioned in the Bible.
When I first began playing football, religion in this country was not something that many players went in for, at least not openly. Fast forward more than a decade and we can see signs of players taking religious inspiration into almost every game, whether it’s the prayers in the changing-room beforehand, the sign of the cross as they enter the pitch or the “I belong to Jesus” vests that some players have felt the need to display to the rest of the world.
I am not offended by religion, I don’t follow a religion myself and I don’t judge others who do. I am fairly nonplussed by the whole thing, if I’m honest, but the cultural explosion in changing-rooms up and down the country has meant that many players are now affected by the beliefs of others.
The annual fasting by Muslims known as Ramadan is one of the more obvious examples of different religions affecting football clubs. According to the Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, the performances of Demba Ba have been affected as a direct result and the team has had to shoulder his loss when the Senegalese striker was withdrawn from the starting XI altogether. Pardew once said after Ba had begun his Newcastle career: “He’s had a slow start, mainly because of Ramadan in my view.” He was speaking after Ba had scored a hat trick against Blackburn.
It is tough at the best of times for a player to settle into a new club, especially that awkward first week as you try to impress your team-mates without going overboard. It must be even harder if you are not fully up to speed after a month of fasting. I should know because I have witnessed exactly the same thing happen to a player at a club I used to play for and while our manager made all the right noises in the media, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance that was alien to us players that knew him, inside the walls of our training ground he was as intolerant towards that player as he was ignorant of his situation.
But that player didn’t only suffer from the ignorance of his manager. I remember that we used to tease him about not eating pork although, in fairness, there was a genuine interest from a few of the other players as to why pork should stand out as a meat to avoid. His answer, though, was never going to be good enough and so, every now and again, two players (and it was always the same two) would try to bury bits of bacon from a Caesar salad in among the rest of his dinner when we were staying in the hotel for an away match.
It never worked because he’d always check his plate when returning from the bathroom and he’d tip the plate of food away and start again. I once asked him what would happen if he ever accidentally ate a bit of pork and I remember being incredibly disappointed when he simply said: “I just spit it out.” I don’t know what I was expecting him to say, to be honest.
But I don’t think there is any widespread agenda specifically against different faiths from within football in this country. Ba himself said in an interview: “I have found that since my arrival in England I have found English people to be very open minded, more so than France.” The Geordie faithful even have a song for him based on his faith which, depending on how many goals he has scored, includes the line: “Demba’s scored 16 since Ramadan and he just can’t seem to get enough”. Set, naturally, to the “Depeche Mode” song “Just Can’t Get Enough”.
Despite that, some people (myself included) are often treading on eggshells where religion is concerned, fearful that anything they say may offend a particular faith. Sometimes, the subject will come up in an interview and I find myself being so careful in what I’m trying to articulate that I end up offending someone because of it. Afterwards, I have to ask the interviewer not to use the part of the segment that might, on the off chance, offend one person.
It has almost got to the point where I am scared to say anything. I remember Jose Mourinho being heavily condemned by the leaders of various Islamic communities when he was the manager of Inter Milan. He had withdrawn the Ghanaian winger Sulley Muntari after 60 minutes and later put his lack of energy down to fasting.
Mourinho said: “Muntari had some problems related to Ramadan. Perhaps, with this heat, it’s not good for him to be doing this (fasting). Ramadan has not arrived at the ideal moment for a player to play a football match.” Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that evaluation, but that doesn’t mean I’m a closed shop if somebody can explain to me why Mourinho’s comments are offensive.
But as I’ve said many times, I am not whiter than white. One of my favourite pastimes is winding up those youth-team players who seem obsessed with covering their bodies with religious tattoos. I’ll ask them when they last went to church or read the Bible or said a prayer.
They always answer “never”, with a look on their face that suggests I must be crazy for asking and even stranger for bringing the subject up. But then I ask why they have an A3-sized tattoo of Christ on the cross on their back. To this day, I have never had any answer other than “fuck off”, which is very un-Christian like, I think you’ll agree.
Rightly or wrongly, my life simply doesn’t have room for religion. I enjoy my vices and I don’t like the thought of being answerable to anybody or anything, I never have. I don’t know enough about it and there are a lot of grey areas that, to my mind at least, could end up making me feel like a hypocrite. I don’t understand how to live my life on somebody else’s terms and I don’t understand what is expected of me, if anything.
I suppose my biggest frustration when footballers attempt religion is the “God understands” angle that many of them (not all) go in for as a way of releasing themselves from the shackles of right and wrong. Having a tattoo that proclaims “Only God can judge me” is not a licence to sleep with as many women as you like before going home to the wife.
It doesn’t mean you can treat people with a complete lack of respect and it doesn’t mean you can pick a fight with a friend of mine who accidentally bumps into you in a London nightclub (you know who you are, mate). Providing I don’t get there before him, then God will judge you my friend. I just hope you like it hot.