Faith Based SoccerThe growth and value of Christian soccer clubs in North America
by Daniel Casey | Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Sport needn’t be serious all the time. In fact, sport can quite rightly be playful. The independent minor league baseball team the St. Paul Saints recently had a bit of fun. In the name of simply being silly and having a laugh, they proclaimed an atheist night where they changed their team name from the “Saints” to the “Aints”. There was no offense meant to anyone nor was there any intent to make it anything but a lark. It was a goof, a gimmick that did what it was supposed to – put a smile on a few faces, made for a mild fluff piece in the local press, and gave a one-time ticket sales spike. This is what a good gimmick does; it puts bodies into seats and it makes those who are already there smile a bit.
I remember the first time my wife attended a minor league baseball game with me. She was astounded by the never ending ‘events’ that went on between innings meant to rile fans up and make them want to come out to the park again. As she sat there watching grown men dance like fools for the ten minutes between the top and bottom of every inning, it suddenly struck her that this is what is meant when something is ‘bush league.’ The antics were stupid, ridiculous, embarrassing and farcical, yet my wife loved it. She loved the fact that she could enjoy the actual game, with a bit of silliness too.
Baseball has been doing this sort of thing for a long, long time. But sometimes gimmicks go off the rails. Just look at FC New York. Soccer in the US is still carving out a niche for itself. Thus, a low-level team like FC New York, who has been floundering for a couple of seasons, is a prime candidate for some grandiose gesture, something epic, something mind-blowing, something that would grab the attention of an all too easily distracted populace or – at the least – an utterly ridiculous gimmick. A great way to do this is to fall in with the notion that there is no such thing as bad press (it should be a red flag that usually the only people advocating this route are either morally bankrupt or have no stake in the outcome). FC New York decided to break one of soccer’s taboos when they announced that their new kit sponsor was the Presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. The team, of course, was never allowed to feature its kit sponsor as FC New York’s league, the NPSL, shut it down because it was in clear rules violation.
So what we see here are two different instances of two different small teams trying to make a big splash. One chose the routine of religion and the other chose the route of politics. Perhaps the two most taboo subjects in America. One chose a more light-hearted approach that was ad hoc and gently mocked itself; the other chose to ally itself with a group for opportunistic reasons in order to take advantage of the uproar. Every front office makes its own decisions. But what we should glean from this is that all sport is a grand paradox, open to all and yet fiercely partisan.
Sport, like politics and religion, cleaves the masses. It can tear us apart and it can bind us. Soccer, it could be argued, is the one sport in the world that does this the most. Religious identification has helped to create some of the greatest soccer clubs that came to mold soccer history. For example, Hakoah Vienna was founded by Austrian Zionists in the first decade of the 20th century. Hakoah Vienna became the most famous soccer club of its time and helped to spread the Danubian style of soccer around the world – a style that set the foundation for the Italian and Spanish football we see today.
Netherland powerhouse Ajax and eminent English side Tottenham Hotspur both have had part of their club culture embrace Judaism, and both of these clubs have been the vanguards of vicious racial attacks because of it. Soccer supporters will spew bile upon opponents with the slightest of pretexts, so a religious or political identity often opens up the door to a whole new avenue of limitless vitriol.
Sometimes soccer becomes a proxy as in the well-documented case of Scottish giants Rangers and Celtic whose meetings were, and possibly still are, not just football matches but battles between Protestants and Catholics, Royalists and Nationalists.
It’s hard to see just how soccer and religion should mix. We often wonder why it has to. But to ask that question is to ignore the reason why we love our teams the way we do. As Luke Sampson once put it, “[Soccer like religion] satisfies that often unappeasable thirst for something greater than they can find in their everyday lives.” We identify with a team because it represents our class or our geography and just as easily our religion or our politics. Coincidentally fans also project to these teams their ideas of their class, geography, religion, or politics.
However, sometimes this identification can become the greatest threat to actually playing a sport – a distraction. If Tim Tebow wasn’t so vocal about his evangelical Protestantism he’d just be a Matt Leinart clone – an entirely forgettable quarterback. North American soccer doesn’t have, nor does it need, a Tim Tebow. But what people might not know is that it does have several professional soccer teams that are stridently evangelical Christian. What does this mean? How does this affect their football? Should this matter?
There are seven teams over three leagues in the US soccer pyramid that profess to be founded on some variant of Christian sports ministry. The USL’s Premier Development League is the home of the Southern West Virginia King’s Warriors, Ocala Stampede (also in West Virginia), Southern California Seahorses, BYU Cougars and Mississippi Brilla FC. At the same level of play as these PDL teams is the NPSL’s Buxmont Torch of eastern Pennsylvania. The most successful and team at the highest level of play is the Charlotte Eagles of the USL PRO. Many of these teams have only been around for a short time and their success has been a mixed bag. In their inaugural year, Ocala won their conference with an 11-3-2 record, but on the other side of things Buxmont managed only one victory over their twelve-game season. But it would be misleading to judge these teams on their records. And that fact makes it difficult to get a handle on the idea of Christian soccer.
Each team makes it clear that they are an organization that is looking to do more than simply play soccer. While nearly every professional soccer club goes through the motions of being part of their community, these Christian clubs have made community service a cornerstone of their existence. But it’s a community service that’s grounded in missionary work both at home and abroad.
The Southern California Seahorses regularly organize tours overseas. Most recently the Seahorses have toured Japan, Mexico and the Czech Republic. The same is true of Mississippi Brilla, an organization that has built itself up slowly based around clinics and tours both local and abroad. For these clubs, it’s not just something they do for better PR or to get their brand name out (although it certainly does that). Soccer is a means to reach out to the larger community and evangelize. But for most of us, soccer is about what happens on the pitch.
So how does a Christian club evangelize on the pitch when religious messages are forbidden by FIFA rules?
The Charlotte Eagles of the third-tier USL have found a way: clean play. Charlotte has expressed its evangelical Christian ethic on the pitch by resisting the temptation to draw the foul and by resisting the temptation to foul. Eagles players don’t dive, grab fistfuls of opponent’s jersey or writhe on the ground in agony only to stand-up entirely fit after the foul had been given. That’s not to say they don’t foul or are immune to being fouled, they do and they aren’t, but Charlotte seems to embody the “Get up & Get on With It” style of play.
Given the mentality of the US fan, this certainly is welcomed. The simple fact is finesse and technique is not strong in the North American game. US and Canadian fans have little patience for players who go to ground easily, whether it’s legit or not. This is because most of us supporters are ignorant of what is going on. Most casual soccer viewers don’t realize just how painful it is to have the top of your foot stepped on by someone running full bore or just how painful it is having the point of a boot kicked into your shinbone at full strength. Nor do they realize just how quickly you can shake off this sudden, sharp pain. Lacking the exposure to high level skill, fans routinely fail to understand how what might appear to be the lightest of touches on the shoulder, tap of the foot, or tug on the jersey can throw off ones balance or equilibrium. It’s all too easy and too common to scream bloody murder that an opponent is a diver and then look away when our own team commits the same act; few of us have the character to acknowledge our own guilt.
What Charlotte has done – rather ingeniously – is take this element away from their game. You won’t see them dive, but you won’t see them accuse either. They actively strive not to foul and when they do they apologize and immediately accept whatever consequence the referee decides. This is a team that plays hard, they play their best, they want to win, but they refuse to play in a way that is outside their code of conduct. And it has been successful for them. In this year’s US Open Cup, Charlotte basically eliminated the entire state of Texas defeating the PDL’s El Paso Patriots, MLS side FC Dallas and current NASL table leader San Antonio Scorpions before they were just slightly bettered by Chivas USA in the quarterfinals.
Charlotte is a team that has found a lasting recipe for success. The organization has been around for twenty plus years, a significant feat in American soccer given teams come and go at the lower levels with startling regularity. But Charlotte isn’t the only model.
Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Mormon Church, has made perhaps the savviest move for its soccer team. After achieving continuous success at the college level, BYU looked beyond collegiate soccer and bought a PDL franchise in 2003. What this meant was that its student athletes now had the chance to play year round and at a level that was above that of the NCAA, all without losing their student status. Currently, the NCAA is blind to the needs of soccer athletes, both men and women. Whereas strict rules are necessary for basketball, baseball and gridiron football at the collegiate level, soccer requires a different set of guidelines. Of the four sports, only soccer is a worldwide industry. You can’t be a professional soccer player if during your development years you are only allowed to play competitive soccer three months out of the year.
BYU realized this early on and realized that its students were being under-served, so it took action. BYU has been the only university to have done this in the US system and it has turned out quite well for them and their players. Certainly in terms of providing opportunity for student athletes, this model should be seriously considered by other institutions. But, with the strict code of conduct for BYU students, the team also must adhere to the values of the Mormon Church. This is not a good or a bad thing, but again we are seeing religious values being attached to a soccer team in North America. And since the club is adherently linked with the University, they are not going anywhere. There stability as a minor league soccer club might be more solid than most privately run clubs in a for-profit business model.
It remains to be seen if the other evangelical Christian teams can put themselves in a position to last. It seems as though they are still finding themselves as organizations. It’s one thing to list beliefs in broad language or quote cryptic scripture on a team website, it’s quite another to field a team year in and year out that is dedicated to setting an example, providing for others and using soccer for missionary purposes. I don’t doubt the enthusiasm from the Ocala Stampede, Southern West Virginia King’s Warriors, or Buxmont Torch. These are organizations that are outgrowths of stable, large faith networks that are looking not to force their beliefs upon anyone but to show everyone just what their beliefs in action are. And that is commendable.
I do have to wonder how non-Christians fit into their team picture. If they wanted to, could an atheist play for Brilla? Would a Muslim be allowed onto the King’s Warriors? I ask because the lower levels are an entry point for many Americans who have the dream of a professional soccer career. Can you be considered part of the team if you’re on the outside of the prayer circle? When is a team a ‘Christian team’ and when is a team just a team that happens to be Christian? It’s a tough question; it’s an odd question. In the United States we don’t typically think of teams as being proxies, the suggestion itself makes us recoil. But when it comes to soccer, it happens to varying degrees. It happens all over the world and is slowly making its way into the American game. It would be erroneous to think of this as a negative and equally so to think of it as something positive. It’s just another simple yet complex aspect of the game. Soccer, like all sport, is neither for nor against you. It’s every man for himself and God against all.