Pantomime and penalties

So did the referee get it right or was it day light robbery?  You watched the replays from different angles and in slow motion several times. What is your conclusion?  If you are English you wil be 100% convinced that the referee got it wrong, there was obvious handball. If you are Argentinian, you’ll be convinced that any apparent contact with Maradona’s hand is a mere trick of the camera angle.  It was a clear goal.

Yes, we’ve all been there haven’t we? It’s part and parcel of football. So, it was no surprise that on Wednesday night, Danish fans were adamant that they were robbed, the penalty should not have stood, Sterling dived. Meanwhile England fans will be certain that there was contact, perhaps Raheem went down a little easy but a striker running at that angle, slightly off balance is easily knocked to the ground, it doesn’t take much contact. So, the penalty and resulting goal will be debated for years to come and rewatched and replayed just like the hand of Maradona or the wink of Ronaldo.  I must admit to being a little more surprised at the level of interest in that one decision from fans of neither England or Denmark.

At the moment, England fans are enjoying the moment, looking forward to their first tournament final in 55 years.  At the moment, we recognise that we are probably the underdogs, have done well to get this far and will do well to hold our own against an in form Italy. That’s what our heads are telling us. Our hearts are convincing us that the Italians lack a little something in midfield and if Greilish and Sterling are allowed to run at their defence we might be in with a shot.  Come Sunday and if there’s been another decision open to question and it goes against us then no doubt we’ll be blaming the pantomime villain of the moment.  You see, that’s football. We need a villain to boo  as well as a hero to cheer. Football is panto for grown up men hence all the singing, whistling and booing. 

And perhaps as Christians that should give us pause to step back a little and ask questions. Do we get caught up in the pantomime a little? Maybe if we are honest, a lot.  Are we dependent upon our team’s success for joy? Are we unable to appreciate the success others experience and enjoy it with them? If the answer to any of those questions is “yes” perhaps it is time for a little bit of self reflection.

Further, we might want to ask why there is a need for pantomime, for villains and heroes. Why is there that need for redemption type stories whether it’s about Gareth Southgate undoing the hurt of 1996 and a penalty miss or the team undoing 55 years of hurt since 1966?  You see, I’m not convinced that it all comes from a sense of entitlement. Most people know that our overall record is okay. We’ve got to some semi finals and quarter finals, occasionally we’ve got to the dizzy heights of being in the top 4 ranked teams.  We are kind of the Tottenham Hotspur of international football and we could be happy with those semi-finals and quarter finals. It’s not that we think of ourselves as entitled. No, it’s the need for drama, the need for a redemptive story.  We want the story to have meaning and purpose. It could be tragedy but we’d rather it were comedy.*

All of that need for drama, for redemption, for heroes to defeat the villains is a reminder that all people at heart are searching for a drama, wanting to be rescued, wanting to be or to meet a hero, wanting to be safe from villains, wanting to see justice done. All of these things are evidence of a deep hunger for the Gospel.

The Gospel is the better drama. It reminds us that we were the villains, yet God chose to step into history. The hero came, not to defeat us as we deserved but to save us and to turn us from being the villains into being part of the victorious side, friends of God. 

Enjoy the football but remember that we have a better story and a greater hero.

* Comedy used here in the sense of genre as seen in Shakespeare and Greek theatre. A tragedy in the classical sense is a story with an ending that is tragic, a comedy one where the ending is one of happiness and the issues and dangers resolved, often marked by a feast.