Cardinal Vincent Nichols gave the welcome address at a special seasonal gathering at the home of football, Wembley Stadium, to mark the contribution Christians make to the beautiful game.
Sporting a 1977 Liverpool FC shirt to celebrate the club's first European Cup win, the Cardinal allowed his passion for his home-city Reds to come through as he drew comparisons between the life of faith and the life of a football fan:
‘One of my childhood memories is of 1962, being at Anfield when Liverpool won promotion to the First Division. Now that's going back a bit, and it just points to the fact that two of the qualities that football can engender are loyalty and fidelity.
‘We don't follow a team because it's successful. We follow a team because that's where we belong, where we have that sense of belonging. And that is one of the virtues that belongs to the football supporter and to the person of faith.
Part of the Football Association's 'Faith and Football' series, the Christian celebration took place in the Bobby Moore Suite on Sunday, 3rd December, the First Sunday of Advent.
The afternoon got off to a particularly Catholic start as Cardinal Vincent was introduced by broadcaster and compere for the day Adrian Chiles, who converted to Catholicism in his late thirties.
He began with an amusing story of how, when covering an international tournament for ITV, he invited long-term rivals and midfield hardmen Roy Keane and Patrick Viera to Mass at the local Catholic Church. In full knowledge of the on-pitch animosity between the Man United and Arsenal legends, he admitted to a degree of nervous trepidation as the Sign of Peace approached. Fortunately, there was a cordial ‘peace be with you’ from all parties. The postscript was that Liverpool defender of the same era, Jamie Carragher, another pundit and Catholic, didn't turn up as he was convinced that Chiles was pulling his leg, presuming that particular triumvirate would never attend Mass together.
The afternoon provided many inspiring and humorous moments with keynote addresses, panel discussions and a time of pitch-side worship testament to how Christianity has impacted the game at all levels. Ex-Cambridge United footballer Graham Daniels, now general director of Christians in Sport, gave an entertaining address charting the quiet take-up of Christianity amongst pros thirty years ago, to the more emboldened players we see today. Notts County's John Bostock, Wycombe Wanderers' Jason McCarthy, and 129-cap England Lioness Rachel Yankey are testament to this, as are the trailblazers like Graham himself, and Bruce Dyer, who in 1994 became Britain’s first teenage millionaire footballer when he joined Crystal Palace.
Sky Sports Soccer Saturday presenter Simon Thomas, son of a Kings Lynn vicar, talked poignantly with Adrian Chiles about his Christian upbringing and how his faith helped him cope with the death of his first wife aged just 40, and then to recover and look forwards to embrace the future.
The event was supported by Christians in Sport, Sports Chaplaincy UK, the Catholic Church, the Church of England, the Methodist Church, Evangelical Alliance, the Baptist Church, the United Reformed Church, Salvation Army, and Premier Radio.
Thank you very much for those words of welcome. I'm really delighted to be here this afternoon, at least to show off the right colours! It's a 1977 shirt from the European Cup Final in Rome, when Liverpool won the European Cup for the first time. The first of many times, I might add. Actually, just to go on a little bit more about Liverpool; a minute ago, they were winning 1-0, with Trent Alexander Arnold having scored. He went to the same school as me. Anyway, Fulham have drawn level, so it's 1-1.
One of my childhood memories is of 1962, being at Anfield when Liverpool won promotion to the First Division. Now that's going back a bit, and it just points to the fact that two of the qualities that football can engender are loyalty and fidelity. We don't follow a team because it's successful. We follow a team because that's where we belong, where we have that sense of belonging. And that is one of the virtues that belongs to the football supporter and to the person of faith.
As football supporters, we have our low moments and our high moments, and we live with them both. We are in the depths sometimes, but we're constantly seeking glory. That's a very close parallel with the life of faith. You remember, from the Book of Genesis, we're told that we're made of dust, but dust destined for glory: for the glory of God and the glory of heaven. The glory that we seek, as footballers and supporters, is a little reflection of that deeper glory that faith gives to us and is our hope for eternity.
I will conclude these few remarks with a prayer and a blessing.
Lord, our God, we ask you to bless this day.
We ask you to bless our footballers, our football teams and clubs,
as they reach out to those in need around them.
We ask you to keep our eyes fixed on the glory that you have in store for all mankind,
that we may be faithful witnesses to that glory, and never falter in our hope in you.
And may Almighty God bless us, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Photo: Cardinal in Liverpool FC colours speaking at FA's Faith and Football event at Wembley Statement (Mazur/CBCEW.org.uk)