Thought for the Week: Joseph Jones on good sports

‘A successful team has a clarity about its higher purpose.’

‘Marcus Rashford spent much of the pandemic lobbying on homelessness and child hunger.' | Photo: by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Apologies: if you’re sick of the football you probably won’t enjoy seeing it on the cover of the Friend. But even the most competition-resistant Quaker can’t have failed to notice the headlines this week: another tough defeat for England.

I’m not English, and the sporting gods I grew up with threw a ball of a different shape. Gods they were though, given awe and reverence in exchange for the responsibilities of their position. And it can be tough to watch your gods fail. I’m not sure I did ever see that happen, though. I saw teams lose, of course. But gods aren’t gods because they guarantee a hoped-for outcome. Gods of this kind are most potent when they are a locus of our aspirations – a representation of what we, as a supporting body, could be at our best.

In the Wales of my childhood, everyone loved Gareth or Barry John. These were the mercurial beirdd of our anthem: tricksy, full of flair, making the most of their diminutive stature. By contrast we considered an English rugby player to be solid but stolid – a large and overwhelming force at times, but one that could become blunt with baggage. Win or lose, these things spoke to our self-understanding, part-real, part-imagined.

The England team that lost on Sunday night has been interesting to watch from this perspective. The team’s sense of itself has been guided by its performance coach, Owen Eastwood, who is of Māori descent. Eastwood once wrote to the tribe from which his father was descended, asking for details about his heritage. He received a two-word reply: ‘You belong.’ ‘It was like a person putting their big arms around me,’ he told The Bookseller magazine.

It was an experience he has taken into his coaching of England, leaning on another Māori concept, whakapapa. This imagines a line of people reaching back and forwards in time. A great light moves down this chain until it becomes ‘your time’, he says. When it is shining on you, ‘you have an obligation to make the tribe stronger… what you achieve [then] is going to be your legacy’. The light animates you, but brings with it a responsibility.

‘A successful team has a clarity about its higher purpose,’ he told The Guardian. ‘The England football team has a purpose to inspire and unify.’ For the players, this has not meant merely finding some common denominator. They were scoffed at by some – including the home secretary – for taking a knee in anti-racism solidarity. Jordan Henderson scored in rainbow laces, offering a rare welcome to football for LGBT fans. Marcus Rashford spent much of the pandemic lobbying on homelessness and child hunger. These gods may have lost a game, Friends, but they have not failed.

Joe is editor of the Friend.

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