World Cup fever reminds me of my favourite football story, all the better for being true. In late 1990 Dr George Carey had been elected but not yet taken up office as Archbishop of Canterbury. I had been elected but not yet taken up office as Chief Rabbi. Someone discovered that we were both Arsenal supporters.
He asked whether we would like our first ecumenical gathering to take place at Highbury Stadium — a midweek match for obvious religious reasons. We both replied enthusiastically that we would.
The great day arrived. We were taken down to meet the players. We went out, beneath the floodlights, on to the sacred turf, to present a cheque to charity. The loudspeakers announced our presence. You could hear the buzz go around the ground. Whichever way one chose in the theological wager, that night Arsenal had friends in high places. They could not possibly lose.
A nachtiger tog, as my grandmother used to say: Would that it were so. Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in 63 years. They lost 6-2 to Manchester Utd. The Archbishop was beside himself in agony.
The next day, one of the national newspapers ran the story and came to the conclusion that if, between them, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi could not bring about a win for Arsenal, did this not prove that God does not exist? On the contrary, I said, it proves that God exists. It’s just that He supports Manchester Utd!
There is, of course, a serious point at stake. Football is a ritualised substitute for war, a way of channelling into a peaceful direction emotions that would otherwise lead to violence. The passions football arouses — loyalty, identification with one side against the other, jubilation, heartbreak — are precisely those that once led nations into battle. Not just nations: religions as well.
Homo sapiens is a violent animal, the Bible and socio-biologists agree. Without the capacity to fight, our ancestors would not have survived. For centuries, however, that genetic instinct has been dysfunctional, increasingly so as our technologies grow more powerful.
Hence the development of democratically elected governments as a way of achieving a transfer of power without bloodshed. Hence, too, the emergence of the market economy and international trade. As Montesquieu pointed out in the 18th century, when two different cultures come into contact they can do one of two things: trade or wage war. Politics and market economies regulate and mediate conflict. Not always, but often they create the conditions of peace.
But the emotions that once led to war remain, and even in the 21st century still seek expression. I weep at the descent of Afghanistan and Iraq into what Hobbes called “the war of every man against every man” in which life is “nasty brutish and short”. We still witness the sacrifice of human life on the altar of someone else’s desire to win, sometimes even in the name of God himself.
Which brings me back to football. I learnt that night that the game is bigger than the team. And the game only exists by both sides playing by the same rules. If you try to win by practising violence against your opponents, you don’t win. You merely destroy the game.
The same applies to every form of human conflict, including religion. If you try to demonstrate your faith by violence — as, for instance, the crusaders did to the Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem in 1099 — you destroy truth and faith. Only madness could lead men to believe otherwise.
My joke about God supporting Manchester Utd has a serious point. What if the God of my side were also the God of the game? Might that not give us pause before imposing our views on others by force? Might it not lead us to seek less destructive, more rule-governed ways of expressing our violent instincts? Like football.