The news of Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Jeremy Helan’s retirement for religious reasons on Sunday was a reminder to those within football’s bubble that there are some who don’t see the game as the be all and end all in life. Tom Simmonds looks at why Helan’s decision is so rare.
The shock factor attached to the Frenchman’s decision is in its finality; terminating a lucrative career at 24 to travel to Saudi Arabia and study Islam is a major sacrifice, and one that Helan has obviously decided is the right one for himself. The ins and outs of the matter are for nobody else but him, but it has brought the rarity of such all-or-nothing decisions in modern professional sport into focus.
The biggest reason for religious footballers squashing down any religious convictions is almost certainly to do with Sunday football being a fact of life, even in lower divisions these days. This is largely due to television, but also other factors including police advice and fixture congestion. Christian players who might have moral and religious objections to playing on Sundays seem shy about voicing these, and a large number of Muslim players routinely play during Ramadan. The footballing calendar is a relentless machine, and its cultural pervasiveness – and its role as an ersatz religion in many places – demands the sort of subordination of many other life choices to function.
A look to America shows how heavily the commercialisation of sport can also compromise religious conviction. The NFL is full of players who are fond of making pronouncements of ostentatious religiosity on a frequent basis. You’re generally never more than three or four tweets away from a Bible quote on a large number of NFL players’ Twitter feeds. Yet, NFL games generally happen on a Sunday and these players appear to be able to reconcile themselves quite easily to playing on the Sabbath.
Top-level American football has always happened post-Church on Sundays, which probably helps entrench opinions that somebody with the requisite athletic gifts is allowed to display them in that way on Sundays. NFL players have a huge earning potential from spin-off endorsements, which may also help them think that God doesn’t mind them doing something other than worship on the seventh day, but each player will have their own individual drive.
Back in the UK, there are still examples of those who find ways to accommodate their sporting prowess alongside their religion. The Scottish rugby union prop Euan Murray announced in 2010 that he would not play on Sundays – or even give interviews to Sunday newspapers – due to his beliefs. Former Leyton Orient and Middlesbrough winger Alan Comfort maintained an interest in religion throughout his career, to the point where he was able to train for a career in the clergy when he was forced to retire through injury at 25. Former Chelsea and QPR midfielder Gavin Peacock has also followed Comfort into the church after initially experimenting with punditry.
This brings us back to what religion ultimately is at its core, something highly personal to the believer. The Christians who play on Sundays, the Jewish players who play on Saturdays and the Muslims who play during Ramadan will all have had their own internal wrangles with their faith and made a decision that they are able to go against religious orthodoxy to pursue their careers. Some are able to find accommodations with potentially compromising turns of events. When Fredi Kanoute was at Sevilla, he did so by wearing a plain shirt and not promoting their betting company sponsor.
For his reasons, Helan has decided that his football career is stopping him from following his religion in the way that he would like to. His decision does remind us that there are things far more important in life than football, and while his interpretation might be seen by some as overly puristic, if it brings him the peace he is seeking, then it’s the right decision for him.
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