History buffs probing the origins of the Cross of St. George will find themselves exploring a labyrinth of faith and legend in the late Middle Ages.
But to see this heraldry symbol, just look at England’s flag -- a bright red cross on a white background. Soccer fans may notice that the English side’s 2018 World Cup kits feature a St. George’s Cross on the back collar. During away games, a subtle cross covers the entire front of the red jersey.
This is interesting, since the International Football Association Board’s “Laws of the Game” -- used at the FIFA World Cup -- state: “Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images.” This rule “applies to all equipment (including clothing) worn by players,” according to IFAB guidelines.
Does this apply to religious symbols woven into the flags and traditions of many nations?
“It’s important to remember that the rules of soccer came from Europe,” said Jennifer Bryson, director of the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. “The IFAB began in England. FIFA began in Europe. Both of these organizations are supposed to be truly international -- but their roots are European. Basically, the word ‘religion’ in these rules means ‘Christianity.’ ... FIFA is still trying to come to terms with the rest of the world.”
It’s hard to imagine a more challenging task than imposing modern European secularism on this very religious planet, said Bryson in an interview. England’s Cross of St. George is just one example of faith mixing with football. Players from Iran wear their nation’s flag, with a red “Allah” symbol and two bold horizontal bars consisting of 11 repetitions of “Allahu akbar (God is greatest).” Can Brazilian evangelicals keep wearing “I belong to Jesus” T-shirts under their jerseys?
Bryson has paid close attention during World Cup 2018, looking for expressions of religious faith. She summarized her early findings in a late June lecture in Washington entitled “Exorcisms and Exercise, Crosses and Cross Passes: What Religious Freedom Has to Do With the World Cup.”
She gave participants a quiz, including this question: “National football association officials of what country objected when a team called in religious leaders to conduct an exorcism to rid a soccer field of evil spirits before a match?” Answer: China.
“Sport is so relevant to religious freedom because it offers a shared civic space where people from diverse traditions come together and compete toward a common goal,” said Bryson during the lecture. Her bottom line: “Your own religious freedom is most protected when your neighbor of another faith also has religious freedom.”
In this World Cup, Bryson noted that Egypt’s Mohamed Salah prostrated and prayed after scoring against Russia. A Catholic and an evangelical knelt together in prayer -- one player from each team -- after Belgium defeated Panama. A Nigerian player waved his rosary after a win. An Eastern Orthodox player for Sweden made the sign of the cross when entering the game. So far, no one has been penalized.
There have been controversies during international play in the past, said Bryson.
In 2003, leaders in heavily Protestant Scotland proposed a ban on players making the sign of the cross in a “provocative way.” During a 2010 match in Austria, an Israeli player received a yellow card when, while celebrating a goal, he knelt and prayed after donning a yarmulke. In 2011, the Iranian women’s team withdrew from an Olympic qualifying match when told that players could not participate while wearing hijabs. Evangelical Jaelene Hinkle withdrew from the U.S. national squad last year, rather than wear the mandatory LGBTQ “pride” rainbow jersey.
The goal, said Bryson, appears to be avoiding acts and symbols that offend other players. However, officials get to determine whether religious symbols, gestures or speech are intended to be provocative. Of course, a symbol that is secular in one culture -- like a rainbow jersey -- may have powerful religious implications in another.
“It appears that established symbols -- like flags -- are OK,” she said. “It also appears that short, expressive prayers spoken to God are acceptable, as opposed to cries of triumph aimed at other players. ... In the end, the referees get to make the final decisions.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)