Evolution within English soccer: Faith in Christ being more openly discussed

When Alan Comfort joined Cambridge United in 1984, his new teammates told him to watch out for Graham Daniels — an outspoken Christian — because he was “a bit different.” Comfort was brought in to replace Daniels, prompting Cambridge players to ask Daniels how he could believe in God when he was on the verge of being let go by the team.

Comfort became a Christian through Daniels and is now the club chaplain for Leyton Orient, a team in the fourth tier of the English soccer structure. As a player, he was once asked by his manager to pick between his faith and his loyalty to his coach.

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“He said, ‘I’ve got a question for you,”’ Comfort once told The Guardian (via The Athletic). “‘Who is more important to you, me or God?’ I thought about it and knew that I was in big trouble. I said God was more important. And I never trained or played for that club again. He said, ‘See the door? When you go out, don’t ever come back.’”

Today, things are much different for Christians in English soccer. Daniels is the general director of the Christians in Sport network, which serves more than 500 athletes in a variety of sports through mentorship, Bible studies and prayer.

With churches closed during the global pandemic, CIS has organized sermons and group discussions for its members on Zoom.

“My faith doesn’t mean I’m not going to fear what’s out there or what’s going on in this situation, but my faith gives me the courage to walk through it,” Crystal Palace defender Joel Ward recently told the BBC. “It helps me look to something which is bigger than this and bigger than myself so I can hold on to that.”

Doncaster Rovers manager Darren Moore, who briefly managed West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League, is involved in CIS and sees tremendous value in the support it provides.

“Particularly as men we can bottle a lot of stuff up,” Moore recently told The Times in London. “It’s so good to know there are people that you can share the pain and frustration with, and give you some sort of guidance. Get a job, lose a job, you know that CIS is always there to turn to.”

For Michael Johnson, another CIS regular who currently works with England’s under-21 men’s team, faith was a key part of navigating the end of his playing career.

“You can feel empty, you can feel you have lost your identity,” Johnson told The Times. “That is why my Christianity was so important when I retired. I felt loved not for playing in front of thousands of people but just in my living room on my own at home.”

Bristol City midfielder James Morton grew up in a Christian home but didn’t make his faith his own until he was a teenager. The 21-year-old spent the first half of the 2019-20 season on loan at Forest Green Rovers before being recalled by his parent club in England’s second division, Bristol City.

Morton participates in a weekly Zoom meeting with players across the country to talk about a specific topic related to the Bible.

“It started as 10 people and now there’s about 30,” he recently told The Athletic. “These are all people who are Christians in football, all around England at different clubs, different ages, and we come together as one and talk about things that we relate to.”

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Faith has played a crucial role for the team at the top of the English soccer landscape as well. Liverpool won the Champions League — Europe’s preeminent club competition — last June and was on the verge of clinching the Premier League when play was halted due to the coronavirus.

Alisson Becker, the team’s Brazilian goalkeeper and reigning FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year, has performed multiple baptisms for people within the soccer community, including teammate Roberto Firmino.

Liverpool’s manager Jürgen Klopp is also a Christian who speaks publicly about his faith.

“There is nothing more important to me [than my faith],” Klopp said in The Times article. “That is why I cannot bear to lose it, and that is why I find I have no reason to fear.”

While any discussion of religion or faith used to be a rare occurrence in English soccer, it is no longer uncommon for players like Becker and Morton to be open about how important their relationship with Christ is to them.

“Football is a massive part of my life but I put my identity as a Christian,” Morton told The Athletic. “I was brought up in a Christian family and it wasn’t until five or six years ago that I wanted to take that on myself. I wanted to do that because I realized who God was, who He is, and that gives me a lot of purpose and an identity that I think if I relied on football, I wouldn’t get so much.”

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