Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without another spat on social media, a venue in which it seems even the most mild-mannered people can be transformed into intemperate demons. I do my best to avoid getting involved, but when this one popped up on Facebook in the aftermath of Leicester City’s remarkable Premiership triumph, I knew I was going to find it hard to resist: “I’ll just put it out there: Leicester’s achievement in the Premier League is a truly remarkable sporting achievement; there’s no doubt about that. But can someone please explain why it should be the lead story in the nation’s news broadcasts for two days running now? Is it really the most important event that’s happened? I don’t get it and am genuinely wondering what I’m missing. Anyone?”
Thankfully, the said correspondent was a Catholic, thus allowing me to play my Magnificat card. “What?” I hear you say. Some 10 years ago, I was asked to present a programme for Channel 4 on whether football could be seen to be complementing or, indeed, replacing traditional religious impulses and longings in Western society. We gave the documentary the arresting title Hallowed Be Thy Game and asked managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson if they had ever invoked the assistance of the Almighty during big matches.
There was one idea I had for the film that got left on the cutting-room floor. I had been meditating on the words of the Magnificat and marvelled at their delight in the unlikely victory of the underdog, the sense of the world order being turned on its head. I looked back to those classic Match of the Day “minnows’ triumphs”: Ronnie Radford’s epic 1972 screamer in Hereford’s 2-1 FA Cup defeat of Newcastle United; Bournemouth’s 2-0 elimination of Manchester United in the 1984 Cup third round; and plucky little Wimbledon’s shock 1-0 defeat of Liverpool in the 1988 Cup Final.
My aim had been to splice John Motson and Barry Davies’s BBC commentaries with excerpts from the Magnificat:
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
… and Newcastle from Division One have been sent packing.
He hath put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly
… and little Bournemouth, more than 60 league places below their powerful opponents, have done it!
So when my football-eschewing Facebook chum posted that message, I was able to suggest that, yes, it really was more than a football story. BBC Radio 4’s Today programme hadn’t been broadcast direct from Leicester on the morning of May 3 because it was a “mere football” story. The team that had been quoted at 5,000-1 to win back in August were, I asserted, “touching people way beyond the usual suspects in the football world. In a world where money and celebrities hog all the power and coverage, the Leicester narrative speaks to a part of the human heart that says, ‘it need not be this way’. If you don’t get this, just go and revisit the Magnificat: ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.’ I think this David/Goliath binary thing is a Jungian archetype embedded in the universal human consciousness.”
That Chelsea, Arsenal and the two Manchesters had spent between them approaching £700 million on players and still failed to come out on top, while Leicester’s top scorer Jamie Vardy, with 31 goals, had been signed from Fleetwood Town for a pittance, was a decisive rebuttal to football’s insane world of spiralling money-mania.
That delight in all of us when the little guy comes out on top speaks to a dimension in all of us rooted in Gospel hope. I call them “the inversions”, and the Gospels are replete with them: the first shall be last and the last first; if you try and save your life you will lose it, but if you lose it, you will end up saving it.
Dare we hope and believe that the Word will have the final word, and that in the fullness of time, all temporal power struggles and apparent triumphs of the corrupt and evil will be transcended and put right in a transformative new order?
In its own small way, that is why Leicester City tugged on our heartstrings. The European Championships begin in France on June 9 and the expanded tournament now has 24 teams taking part. Ladbrokes is offering 2,000-1 on a Wales-Northern Ireland final. Can the Magnificat spirit of Leicester strike again? Or will the Germans win once more on penalties?
Mark Dowd is a writer on religious affairs
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