Most people here in the UK are getting very excited about having a Scot in the Wimbledon Final. The first British Male for 74 years but there is also a lot of debate about the significance of Andy Murray’s post match celebrations (left). He has been making what appears to be a religious gesture at the end of every game this tournament. Intriguing…… This gesture of pointing up to heaven at the moment of victory or when scoring a goal seems to becoming more frequent in top level sport. As far as I aware, in recent times it was started by Kaka, the brilliant Brazilian midfield playmaker, who admitted in frequent interviews that it was a significant religious gesture. Kaka, who suffered a career-threatening and possibly paralysis-inducing spinal injury at the age of 18, remarkably made a full recovery. He attributes his recovery to God and has since tithed his income to his church. Thanks to Kaka, I had a lot of material for assemblies and masses with schoolboys over the last few years – there is something truly inspiring about giving thanks to God and remembering Him in the heat and emotion of triumph, especially in football when a goal comes so quickly and sometimes out of the blue. Another recent exemplar would be Chelsea’s, Frank Lampard. His pointing to heaven began in the immediate aftermath of his mothers death, so is more of an ‘in memoriam’ than an ‘amdg’ (giving glory to God). I don’t know if he is still continuing it, because quite honestly I try not to pay much attention to Chelsea. A similar in-memoriam gesture is made by David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox. Unlike Lampard and Murray, Kaka wears his faith on his sleeve, or literally on his boots, which are embossed with the words ‘Jesus in first place’. His ‘I belong to Jesus’ t-shirts, and thanksgiving prayers have been seen by audiences of billions after the World Cup 2002 win, and the Champions League 2007 victory for AC Milan, which as a Liverpool fan I avoided, as I was in mourning. In the UK people have a phobia about overt religiosity, so we tend to be more reserved. When Murray was asked about his celebrations he said: “Well it’s something for me and the guys that I work with. I don’t really want to go into too much detail because I’ll end up getting asked about it every single day.” When asked to explain whether or not it had anything to do with religion, Murray stood his ground. “Whether it is or not, I’m not going to tell anyone,” he said.
There is another category of religious gesture at major sporting events best represented by making the sign of the cross. In football it is often seen as players run onto the pitch, or prepare to take a penalty. Occasionally it is made as a gesture of thanksgiving after a goal is scored. This belongs to a different category to the gesture of ‘reverence’ of Kaka et al. Cynics or the secular minded would say this is mere superstition, asking God to help you win, or the more legitimate prayer to keep you safe from harm. However a wise member of the community today told me over breakfast that it was technically an apotropaic – a gesture intended ‘to turn away harm’. A truly superstitious form of this is knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. The gesture of blessing yourself with the sign of the cross is identified with Catholicism, or if it is from right to left Orthodox ( a la Djokovic – who has been awarded the highest honour by the Serbian Orthodox Church). Seeing great sportsmen do this can inspire devotion, indifference or occasionally hostility. The Italian forward Marco Negri was asked to stop blessing himself by Rangers as it was seen as provocative to the anti-Catholic crowd. The next goal he scored his celebration involved him holding his wrists together as though they were manacled. The devout Polish goalkeeper for Celtic, Artur Boruc, would bless himself and pray before kick off every game. This was interpreted as a provocative gesture by Rangers fans rather than a simple act of prayer. In fact former Rangers player and current Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson asked Mexican Striker Javier Hernandez to abandon his pre-match Catholic prayer when Man United play Rangers. Hernandez, who is deeply religious, kneels on the centre spot and prays before kick off in every game he starts.
The behaviour of such influential sports figures is often over-reported, dissected and picked over by everyone. But such overt gestures of faith are refreshing and uplifting. Much better that Gazza’s ‘dentists chair’ celebration which glorified a binge drinking culture that was to lead to his demise or Robbie Fowler pretending to snort the white line on the pitch, even if it was an ‘ironic’ gesture to false drug allegations. So come on Murray – man up – tell us the reason behind your celebration! :)