The God Squad

When it comes to God, I’m not really sure which way I sway; seldom Sunday-school attendances are the closest I’ve come to regularly observing organised religion, and the last few times I’ve visited church have only been to say my farewells to family that passed away.

I prefer to live my life “undefined”, rather in accordance with karmic and not religious beliefs, but I am open to the concept of religion; I’m just not entirely convinced by it. Too much conflict and confusion surrounds it for my liking, though I appreciate every individual holds the right, constitutional or otherwise, to choose which path they want to follow.

It must be reassuring to be able to convince yourself that your fate lies in the hands of a “higher power”, and I’ve seen plenty of players praying before games, giving gratitude as well as asking for protection for the following 90 minutes. One I distinctly remember having a firm connection with his faith was Ebby Nelson-Addy, an ex-Aston Villa teammate of mine now at Hartlepool United, who recently featured in an article declaring “If I wasn’t a Christian, I would have quit football”.

I have to admit that at the time when Villa told me they were no longer interested in renewing my contract, I also got on my knees once or twice with my hands tightly clutched together; it was at least worth a try, as farfetched as it seemed and as fickle-faithed as I was. Perhaps selfishly, I pleaded in prayer, begging for divine intervention to prevent my impending rejection, but ultimately, no blessing or benediction prevented the imminent expulsion. And though the Villains also robbed Ebby of his chance of making it in the top-flight the year after, he is successfully managing to make his steady way back up through the lower-leagues.

So is there some substance to the chest-crossing, cross-kissing and glory-giving? Players goal celebrations these days almost resemble Sunday-mass, with South Americans and Africans in particular making a point of thanking the big man upstairs for the assistance. Brazilian players of a Pentecostal or evangelical persuasion, for instance, like to display their faith by pointing skywards after a goal, kneeling to give thanks after a victorious match, or, as Kaká famously did in 2002 and often thereafter, stripping down to an under-shirt proclaiming “I belong to Jesus”.

Religion and soccer, however, though more prevalent and in the public eye today due to the influx of the aforementioned nationalities gracing the top European soccer leagues, have long been intertwined. With a relationship dating back decades, before and beyond the times when England ruled supreme in the soccersphere, a fledgling home-grown forward who harboured aspirations of making the 1970 Mexico World Cup to defend the title for the reigning champions, Peter Knowles, best exemplifies the link.

Alongside George Best, Stan Bowles and Frank Worthington, Peter Knowles helped shape the 60’s stereotype of the “rock-and-roll” soccer-star, whom though worshipped by thousands, were by no means angels. His flamboyant fashion translated from flicks-and-tricks on the soccer field to having his name plastered along the side of his brand new MG sports car: something even former Liverpool forward and automobile modification enthusiast El-Hadji Diouf hasn’t yet done.

But it was following a successful summer stint in the USA with the Kansas City Spurs, whom he was representing whilst still contracted to Wolverhampton Wanderers in a promotional mini-league in which various teams from Britain went to America to represent different states, that Knowles had his life-changing epiphany. And a simple knock of a door is all it took.

After inviting in the two Jehovah’s Witnesses he found on the other side, 21 year-old Knowles, who was grieving the loss of his father and sisters at the time, found solace in their words and subsequently those of the Bible. Slowly but surely, Knowles fell out of love with the beautiful game, and though he returned to Wolverhampton the following season after rejecting Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s attempts to lure him through the gates of Anfield later that very summer, within the next year Knowles had embarked upon a new adventure in the hope he would one day instead be welcomed through the pearly gates of heaven.

Knowles retired from soccer at the tender age of just 23, despite his promising future and the persistence of those that didn’t want him to see him let it go to waste. Team-mate Frank Munroe labelled him a ‘bloody idiot’, and Wolves sent him a new contract every year for the following ten seasons in the hope he’d re-sign, but Knowles stayed strong and stuck by his decision. And judging from his recent remarks, there doesn’t seem to be much regret on his part: “There hasn’t been one day in 40 years where I have turned around and said to myself, my wife or my friends, ‘I wish I hadn’t packed up football’. It’s the best decision that I’ve ever made. I’m content with life. When I look at my standard of living and how it has dropped over the years, it doesn’t matter. I have my health. I’m still married — and if I had carried on playing football I wouldn’t have been!”

But though Knowles may be remembered as one of the great unfulfilled talents of English soccer, the man famous for channeling “The Hand of God” in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final in Mexico against the English national team, has been immortalised for a different reason entirely. Fantastic but flawed, Diego Maradona’s glittering career gathered a cult-following that decided to overlook his questionable lifestyle and hail the frequent sinner as their saint and saviour. Iglesia Maradoniana (English: Church of Maradona; literally Maradonian Church) is a religion, founded on October 30, 1998 (Maradona’s 38th birthday) created by fans of the retired Argentine, whom they believe to be the best player of all time.

Alejandro Verón, one of the founders of the bizarre belief, was quoted as saying: “I have a rational religion, and that’s Catholic Church, and I have a religion passed on my heart, passion, and that’s Diego Maradona.” What’s even more extraordinary is that they even have their own list of commandments and Lord’s Prayer dedicated to D10s: a word which fuses the number 10, made legendary by Maradona, and dios, the Spanish word for god.

But though the Iglesia Maradoniana is looked upon as lighthearted and occasionally even laughed-at, others observing different religions, Muslims in particular, frequently fall upon hard times when it comes to balancing their sporting and spiritual schedules, with coaching sessions and even matches often having to be organised around their need to fast and pray. Some players find it impossible to get through 90 minutes without having a little on-field snack to boost their energy, but what about those who are fasting from sun-up til sundown? Celebrating Ramadan means Muslim players can’t eat or drink during daylight hours, regardless of the fact they could be picked to perform in elite level competition. You don’t need to be a sports scientist to suppose the drastically damaging effects that could have on the players in question.

And in two years time, we may very well see the negative sporting side effect of having to stick to such a difficult, disjointed diet. In 2018, Ramadan will begin on Wednesday, the 16th of May and will continue for 30 days until Thursday, the 14th of June, meaning Muslim players could be forced to conclude their domestic season whilst fasting. June 14th, the day Ramadan is scheduled to conclude, is also, coincidentally, the day the 2018 World Cup in Russia is set to kick-off, and it will certainly be interesting to see how Muslim players fare. It is believed that the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad during the holy month of Ramadan, which has been referred to as the “best of times”. Let’s hope their practice and prayer brings them just that and protects them from the potential perils of performing after a month of appropriate sportsman’s nutrition abstinence.

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