PLATO said you could discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. In this nation, there’s no better proof of that than observing spectators at the football.
Whether it’s AFL or NRL or some other code, the scene is much the same. Grown men who in other circumstances greet each other by shaking hands ruggedly, can wind up hugging strangers, dancing together and crying with emotion at football matches.
Football is a leveller. As someone said about attending the football, if the person next to you is swearing like a wharfie he/she might be a billionaire. Or your Nana. Or a wharfie.
Politicians may confess to being atheists, but none that I have encountered have been game enough to admit not being interested in the football. That would be political suicide, like calling an election on Grand Final Day.
I recall as a cadet journalist meeting the then Prime Minister and Richmond legend Jack Dyer in the same week. I now remember little about meeting the PM but recall in detail a long conversation with Captain Blood. You’ve got to get your priorities right about these things.
Dyer told of inviting troubled young players into the bath in the clubhouse with him to have a chat. All above board of course and if you were a young footy player, how could you resist an offer like that?
He said he once instructed his players in a final series: “I only have two words for you men – believe in yourselves”. The great man of mangled language was, of course, loved and admired long after his playing years were over. He was, after all, a champion in the egalitarian game.
Marx was wrong when he said religion was the opiate of the masses. It’s football that can sometimes divert the masses from important social and political issues. Football, with its divas and deviates, is the opera of the people. It forms wedges between people, but mostly bonds.
The cliché is that football in Australia is a religion. And some would agree with Anthony Burgess who once said: “Five days shalt thou labour, as the Bible says. The seventh day is the Lord thy God’s. The sixth day is for football.”
Still, vastly more people regularly attend church services in Australia than go to the football.
Perhaps football in this country is a quasi-religion for some people. But there is no evidence that football has saved souls or helped overcome social injustice. It is no substitute for spiritual reality, which is not a spectator sport.
And like anything in creation, football can become idolatrous if we don’t recognise that God is somehow involved in all the moments and in all the events of our lives.
Does God care about football enough to change the outcomes of games? I guess not judging from the fortunes of my Richmond Football Club. But God cares about people and His love overflows into all of life and in all our connections with each other. That includes football.
Good living – like good football – requires nuances in perspective.