Catholics looking to get into soccer? Look no further than Liverpool F.C.
“Come, follow me” is a common translation of what Jesus said in Mt 4:19. But I think he understands (or forgives) me when I say, “Come, follow Liverpool F.C.” There are several reasons why Catholics in particular should embrace this command.
F.C. stands for football club, and Liverpool plays in the English Premier League. As the world’s most popular sport, football (known as soccer in the United States) is truly “catholic.” Just as the same Mass is celebrated in an array of languages and cultural contexts around the world, this same game is played by the globe’s peoples in a remarkable variety of settings. And like most top clubs, Liverpool draws on this global talent pool. Last year the team fielded players from Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Egypt, England, Greece, Guinea, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, Senegal, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and Wales.
Just as the same Mass is celebrated in an array of languages and cultural contexts around the world, this same game is played by the globe’s peoples in a remarkable variety of settings.
The sport is also an especially sacramental one. As players step onto the pitch, often making the sign of the cross or opening their hands to heaven, they enter a liminal space where “the beautiful game” enacts the deeper mysteries of the human condition.
The best players are not only physically gifted but have nous, which, in addition to being a key concept in St. Augustine’s theology, refers to an intuitive grasp of football’s underlying flow. But the better team does not always win (we live in a broken world) and the undeserving are sometimes rewarded (the reality of grace). The sport makes visible the insight of the great Catholic writer Niccolò Machiavelli—a canny “false 9” attacker in his own realm—that human life is defined by the interplay of our own skill (virtù) and forces beyond our control (fortuna). Also, there are frequent stalemates (in football, taking the form of tie scores).
The United States lags behind the rest of the world in this area of Catholic life. But with the Lent-like offseason ending and the Premier League’s new beginning on Aug. 14 (one day before the Feast of the Assumption), there is an ideal kairos moment for conversion. And for those already committed to the sport but loyal to other teams, there is no better time to cross the Tiber (or the Mersey) and embrace the authentically Catholic Liverpool F.C.
Liverpool is historically one of the most Catholic cities in Protestant-majority England. The day after the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster in Sheffield, in which 97 Liverpool supporters were killed, city residents filled Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest Catholic cathedral in England, and the surrounding streets for the requiem Mass. After the police in Sheffield tried to blame Liverpool fans for their own deaths, Liverpool’s Catholic clergy joined other religious leaders in the long campaign for justice and police accountability.
Liverpool also seems subject to divine intervention at key moments. Since two such interventions is the minimum number the church ordinarily requires for sainthood, I will mention two recent ones.
Liverpool F.C. seems subject to divine intervention at key moments.
In May 2019, Liverpool faced Lionel Messi and mighty Barcelona in a two-leg semifinal of the Champions League, the annual tournament to crown Europe’s top team. After a disastrous first game, the club needed to beat the Catalan-Spanish giants by an almost impossible four-goal margin in the second. The decisive goal came from a play forever known as “Corner Taken Quickly,” after the announcer’s call, when Liverpool-born Trent Alexander-Arnold used a clever corner-kick feint to catch Barcelona unaware and set up Divock Origi for a scoring volley. The result was a 4-0 Liverpool win, and Liverpool would go on to win the Champions League title. Is it a coincidence that both Mr. Alexander-Arnold and Mr. Origi grew up attending Catholic schools?
The second miracle came this past year, after a remarkable run of injuries and poor form dropped Liverpool well down in the league table and out of the title race. They needed to win their final five to qualify for next year’s Champions League and salvage their season. On May 16, the third of those games, the run looked all but over, as they were tied 1-1 with West Bromwich Albion as time ticked down. But in the last minute, Liverpool’s Brazilian goalkeeper, Alisson Becker, left his goal empty to run the length of the field for a corner-kick in front of the West Brom net, a classic desperation move. He scored the game-winner with a beautifully directed header worthy of an experienced forward, the first time a Liverpool goalkeeper has scored from open play in the club’s 128-year history.
Despite being an elite goalkeeper and the world’s best-looking man, Mr. Becker is both modest and openly devout. Minutes after his miraculous win, he said, “You can’t explain a lot of things in life. The only answer for me is God. He put his hand on my head today.” Thanking his teammates and players on rival teams for their support after the sudden death of his father earlier in the year, he added, “This is how God loves us, through people.”
As Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s talismanic German coach, put it, “I believe that there is a God who loves us humans, just as we are, with all our quirks, and that’s why I think he also loves football!”
One of the key ways fans participate in the liturgy of football is through song, and the most famous in English football is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” sung by Liverpool supporters at each match. They sing the version recorded by the city’s own Gerry and the Pacemakers, the second-greatest band to come out of Liverpool (the first obviously being the ’80s post-punk sensation Echo and the Bunnymen). Reminding us that in the midst of storms, fear and darkness, we must hold on to hope, the song is as powerful an expression of solidarity, that great Catholic social teaching virtue, as you are likely to hear, especially when sung by thousands after a miracle.
One minor caveat to close. While I think the case for faithful Catholics to support Liverpool F.C. is clear, there is the fact that Norwich City F.C., the home side of the Catholic mystic Julian of Norwich, has won promotion to the Premier League for this coming season, so rooting for them is certainly licit as well…except when they face Liverpool.
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