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Sunday, 25 May 2014

World Cup - Oh Dear!

By Frank E.A. Blasi

Contrary to most people I know personally, including Christian believers, my heart groaned at the news that the England squad were to fly out to Rio in Brazil, to take on the challenge to win the elusive World Cup, and become world champions in international football. As supporters carry on with their daily business, their eyes sparkle with hope and optimism that the 2014 contest will be won by England, for the first time for almost half a century. This was when the Cup was won by England at their own turf in Wembley Stadium against Germany in the Summer of 1966, when I was just a thirteen year old schoolboy. I recall the school games period when many of the boys sang Lonnie Donegan's World Cup Willie, the 1966 England mascot, throughout the Autumn term, with the P.E. master getting into the act as well. Most likely, if not absolute certain, that the name Willie, short for William, would not be allowed public broadcast on the airwaves during the present day!

1966 World Cup Willie Lion Mascot.

Not that I despise England - far from it. Although with full-blood Italian parents, I was born here in England and grew up here. Despite its topsy-turvy weather, there are places in England which are strikingly beautiful, even if, due to being part of a small island, lacks the dynamism of some of the natural features of the continents. We may not have the Niagara Falls of Canada, or the Victoria Falls of Zimbabwe, neither the Rockies of North America, the Alps of Switzerland, and certainly not the Himalayas of Asia, but we do have the gentler Lake District National Park, where I did quite a bit of hiking before I married, boasting beautiful mountains, green fields, lakes and tarns fed by streams (or creeks) with cascading waterfalls, and hiking trails offering spectacular scenery. Back in 1992, a friend and I made it to the summit of Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain at 3,210 feet (978 m.) We referred to it as the Throne of England, even if compared with Mont Blanc bordering France with Switzerland and Italy, let alone the Himalayan Mt. Everest - Scafell Pike is but a bump on the road, yet by climbing it, we have made a marvellous achievement, and we were rewarded with stunning scenery, with tarns shimmering at a distance beneath us, along with a view of the Irish Sea. It would also be unfair to moan that there is no Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in England. This two-hundred mile gash in the ground, if aligned east to west as in Arizona, would cause the North Sea to the east and the Irish Sea to the west to meet in the middle and flood the Canyon, causing the nation to be geographically split into two. And not to mention what I believe this to be my favourite English location, the Jurassic Coastline, particularly in Dorset, where a hiking trail links the famous Old Harry Rocks with the equally famous Durdle Door Arch, passing through the quaint resort of Swanage, once a settlement for quarrying of building stone.

Durdle Door Arch, Dorset

When considering, in addition to its natural beauty, how England is steeped in history, with the famed Stonehenge stone circle dating back to the days of Abraham, and not forgetting many Roman and Medieval structures still standing today- such as at the city of Chester for example, England does have a lot to boast about - it is such a beautiful land steeped in history.

And our Constitution, based on Christian ethics, is one of the best one can live under. Of its greatest assets, the National Health Service was the envy of the world. From the taxes of every person earning an income, a public purse was created so that treatment for all kinds of illness and infirmities became available to all. And what a far cry from the Dickensian days when only the rich and well-to-do could afford to pay for a visit by the Doctor, and further payment for appropriate medicines, leaving the poor to suffer their fate. The NHS has been a great help for both my wife and me over the years of married life. So with all these credentials - natural beauty, steeped in history, the Constitution, and the NHS - why do I cringe at the thought of England winning the World Cup?

I guess that when I was a boy, I recall asking my Mum whether I was English. She was firm in her reply:
No, you are not English, you are a full Italian. But since you were born here, you have British citizenship.

So where does that leave me? A foreigner? No, I was born here. English? No, my parents are Italian. It leaves me as just British, but not English - an Italian, yet living somewhere in no man's land. I grew up feeling that I did not belong here, and for that matter, neither had I ever felt that I belonged to Italy either. I was a young guy without a homeland. Furthermore, my surname caused heads to turn, particularly in secondary education (from age 11-15 years). I was not fully accepted as one of the boys in my class, which was made a lot worse when I did not possess the ability to play team sports, such as football and rugby. When we all lined up in the field to be selected by the team captains, I was always the last one remaining, who walked to one of the teams for want of nowhere else to go. Even when I left school without any qualifications in 1968 and started work in a furniture factory, even there I felt ostracised, with my surname barring me from fitting in adequately.

I guess that's why, in early 1971 at eighteen years of age, I started attending gym and lifting weights to build up muscle. Known here as circuit training, a series of free weights and other apparatus were arranged in a circle, so that in one round I would have exercised all the muscles of the body. Not only had I enjoyed it, but grudging respect from other employees began to be felt.

But it was in the mid 1980s onward that the reality of "being different" actually dawned on me - yes, from fellow Christian believers! I guess it began while on a cycling jaunt across Windsor with three or four other believers on the run-up to the 1986 World Cup, I made a passing statement that I would support Italy. After all, by birth, blood, and parentage, I had a closer tie with Italy than with England. Although I did not join Ascot Baptist Church until 1990, by 1985 I was well known among the single young lads who attended, including a few who sincerely believed that England was a "superior" nation than the rest of the world, especially "the reckless Itai" as I was to become known. I guess this "national superiority" stemmed from Empire, together with the Darwinian concept that the English were more advanced in evolution, and therefore referred themselves as the Master Race.

But to put everything into perspective, I was not hated by them, not even disliked. Through Biblical conviction, I was accepted as a mate, but I had always felt that somehow I was not equal to them, but perceived as nationally inferior. Two lads had insisted that "the English are the best - I'm proud to be English" - a statement backed up by several others. So whenever England played Italy in any international, I tended to stay alone in my apartment with the TV switched off, something I still do to this day. If England did beat Italy, the smirks I would have received would have been close to intolerable. Yet despite of all this, the history of international football show to this day that Italy comes second to Brazil in the number of World Cup victories, with four wins to Italy to Brazil's five, way above England with just one - the historic win over Germany in 1966.

I guess much of this antagonism could have been avoided if these church people took their Bible a little more seriously, including of showing the love of Christ. Instead, even by subconscious, they had a hankering for the former Empire. There was even one fellow, several years younger than me and a graduate to boot, who was convinced that the British Empire was the work of Almighty God, as he expressed it. Some of them agreed, others weren't so sure, but as far as I recall, I was the only believer in Christ who challenged him head on.

Jesus did command his followers to "Go out into the nations and preach the Gospel to every creature." (e.g. Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-18.) But earlier in his ministry, he sent out his twelve disciples with the authority to preach the Kingdom of God, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, even to raise the dead. Then he gave a specific instruction:
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town. (Matthew 10:14-15.)

The English in the past centuries believed that they were the new people of God who had replaced Israel, possibly Rome as well. This was immortalised by the famous hymn taken from the poem written by William Blake:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

Apparently, this poem was put into song in 1916 to encourage soldiers to dream of England as God's country while out fighting to defend its Empire. It would therefore be the result from the earlier invasions into foreign territory to colonise the land, had gotten the approval of God. Naturally enough, the indigenous did not welcome the invaders with open arms. But where Jesus had instructed these "Christian soldiers" to shake off the dust from their feet and retreat, and leave these "horrible indigenous inhabitants" to the judgement of God, instead they invaded with shotgun in hand, and set up their own laws and government, with the mentality that they were the Master Race.

But I guess the blame can't be directed to the indigenous. Rather they cowed into submission when they realised that they weren't able to defend themselves, their families, or their land. After the Empire collapsed, bitter memories remain, which had endured for decades, and had been well documented. If only the British actually obeyed the instructions Jesus had given them - to heal the sick, raise the dead, preach the Gospel of love, grace and forgiveness, and retreat if they found themselves unwelcome - what would have been the outcome? Would India become Christian instead of remaining stubbornly Hindu? Or the same with Nigeria instead of remaining Islamic?

Here is what I find to be the shortfall to all this: Instead of faith, hope and love, the crave to conquer, to fight and win, to prove the nation's superiority. And until the recent past, all in the name of God whose land this was meant to be. One good example came straight from one of the Christian men who were in our church. A proud Englishman, while at work, he once brought a Scotsman to tears after taunting him when England beat Scotland at an international rugby match. While the Scot was weeping, this fellow muttered, Uh! I don't think I'm behaving as Christ would. No, indeed not.

Such an attitude and taunting of team rivalry says it all. And that is the precise reason why I cannot bring myself to support England in the coming World Cup contest. The English are a proud nation who have throughout history, have deluded themselves as being superior to foreigners, and that despite their own boast of being tolerant, they tend to have a disdain towards those who were not born and bred here, particularly throughout the 1950s and 60s, when there was intense discrimination and prejudice towards coloured immigrants. So much so, that when Enoch Powell gave the Rivers of Blood speech in Birmingham on the 20th April 1968, much of the nation sided with him.

So according to Jeremy Paxman in his book, The English - A Portrait of a People, much of this way of thinking is due to the fact that we are an island nation, with at least twenty miles of sea separating the coast of Kent from the northern tip of France, our nearest neighbour of mainland Europe. After all, without any international borders, the English can relish the idea that the very last invasion took place in 1066, precisely 900 years before England won the Cup, when William the Conqueror defeated the indigenous and brought the land under Norman conquest.

Do I dislike the English? No, not at all! God loves them, as he loves all mankind, and he wants all to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved. If God so loved them to the extent that he gave his only Son to die in atonement for their sins, then who am I, as a believer in Jesus, to think otherwise? Rather, I love the English (and all other nationalities) and my sincere desire is that all would believe and be saved. There have been times in the past, particularly in my bachelor days, that I sat alone in my apartment feeling close to tears, as I longed to see far more of my countrymen saved. If there was a nation which was, and is, desperately in need of God's love, it is England, well the UK as a whole. The Cross of Jesus Christ needs to cast a long shadow right across the UK.

And how this nation as a whole desperately need to come under the Shadow of the Cross. In the Bible, we can read the tremendous humbling power the Cross of Jesus Christ can have on a society of people. The 120 in the upper room is a good example of this power (Acts 1:12-15). Here both men and women were praying together - something totally unknown in a typical Jewish synagogue. The group included people of all classes, from Nicodemus the Pharisee right down to the Canaanite woman whose daughter was healed by Jesus. The sense of superiority over inferiority was swept away. Such power did the shadow of the Cross had as it fell across the room. Educational levels had lost their meaning, along with nationalism, wealth and social standing, levels of occupational professionalism, and to put it in a modern sense - the size and location of their homes, their cars, and which football team to support. All these things swept away as they stood naked before a Holy God, which just the shadow of the Cross offering any chance between them and the Almighty. As all huddled together, knowing full well that death will overtake them all, and only the Cross can save them from judgement. It is a terrifying thought, yet also the source of new hope and new aspirations - the desire to follow Jesus and the fullness of life which result from such a decision.

As for myself, I too want the Cross of Christ to slay the old man in me, which includes any national favouritism. In other words, I no longer consider myself British, nor English, nor Italian, neither do I consider myself working class, nor middle class, educated or professional. Under the shadow of the Cross, all these things becomes as stinking dung in order that I would know Jesus Christ, and his glorious Kingdom, to which through his death and resurrection, I have become a citizen, one of God's family.


  1. Praise God that we are all one in Christ Jesus! He came "for His own," i.e. the Hebrew people, but most of them rejected Him, allowing all of us to be engrafted into His family tree through faith alone. Feelings of isolationism, national sovereignity, and sadly, even racism and other forms of overt prejudice persist due to the curse of sin, but in Heaven, all these barriers will disappear and all believers will truly be one in Him.
    Thanks as always for the enlightening post, and God bless,

  2. So often we have ignored God's clear teachings on these subjects. The very fact of our competitiveness indicates a heart that is not right with God. While we can't change the world, we can at least obey god and show the world what he would want. Good post..

  3. We cannot change the world, but we can with the Lord's help, change our negative and hateful attitudes to others, whatever form it takes. As ever Frank, the keenest and most insightful essay I have read on English snobbery and prejudice and nationalism. We should abhor all prejudices but we have to start with our own and the nation we live in.