With the World Cup about to start, and Christmas looming into view, Rev Peter Crumpler gives his thoughts on the unique timing of this year’s festival of football.

I blame dad for my fascination with the World Cup. 

On the opening day of the 1966 tournament, he brought home a special World Cup book (pictured) to our house in Ealing Road – within earshot of Griffin Park. I’ve still got it today.

Inside, are photos of Bobby Moore, George Cohen and Jack Charlton, and a feature headlined ‘Can England win? Yes, of course they can!’

There are photo features on Pele, ‘the world’s greatest footballer,’ and how Brazil were the favourites to lift the trophy. Another article declares ‘West Germany who won the cup in 1954 may be a dark horse.’ 

And, of course, there’s a list of fixtures, beginning with England’s group matches against Uruguay, Mexico and France, through to the tournament’s final at Wembley on July 30th.

I dust the book off every World Cup in which England is competing, maybe as some kind of wish that the Three Lions will win this time around.

Though without Ivan Toney ready to make and score goals and shine at penalties, Gareth Southgate has surely missed a trick.

But this year’s World Cup feels different to all that have gone before. 

Firstly, because of all the controversy around Qatar’s selection to host the tournament. Wrong time in the season…wrong country…wrong reasons for being there – to name but three objections. (And yes, I know there are counter-arguments.) 

But secondly, because the World Cup is being held in the run-up to Christmas.

As a Church of England priest, football fan and Brentford FC season ticket holder, I find myself with divided loyalties. 

Christmas is a big deal in the Church – it’s all about God coming down to be born as a baby, then to live as a human, to die and rise again from the dead. It’s about the promise of new life. (End of sermon).

Maybe, in the run up to this Christmas, people will be less focused on carols and the seasonal message, and more on the football?

In response, the Church of England has published ideas for churches on how to make the most of the World Cup – including staging a football-themed nativity and moving the date of carol services away from the final.

They suggest staging a topical nativity play, with the shepherds debating whether the ‘new king’ will be greater than Ronaldo, Messi or De Bruyne – and angels singing ‘He’s coming soon’ to the tune of ‘Football’s coming home.’

The CofE has advised its vicars: “Football and faith don’t have to be at odds with one another, whether you love it or not, there’s no escaping the fact that football and the Church have a conjoined heritage.” 

It is reminding people that several of today’s Premier League clubs started up with close local church connections – including west London rivals, Fulham and QPR, and a team called Manchester City. The clubs were set up for the health and wellbeing of their local communities.

So, in the run-up to this Christmas, I’ll be watching the football – and also celebrating Advent – and hoping that the World Cup brings communities, including their churches, together. And wishing Ivan Toney could have been in the mix, making a real difference to the England attack.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, a Bees season ticket holder and a former communications director for the CofE.