THE debate around football clubs and sponsorship has been a hot topic over the past year, with ten of the 20 teams in the Premier League displaying the branding of a gambling company leading to questions about the link between problem gambling and the beautiful game. So it will be a cause for rejoicing that one of the country’s newest football teams has just secured a sponsorship deal with an altogether different business – a firm of local undertakers.

The team giving thanks is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI and the benevolent sponsor in question being Pearce Funeral Services – an independent, family-run funeral directors based in Swindon. Although the details of the sponsorship deal have not been revealed it’s always possible that some of the team members will be able to help out their sponsor with services in kind. The Church of England team were formed at the start of this year and are captained by the Reverend Pouya Heidari, a former professional footballer with Iranian premiership team Peykan Tehran and now assistant curate at Bishopwearmouth St Gabriel in Sunderland. The team will be coached by former Sunderland FC defender Maurice Hepworth, who played for Sunderland from 1969 to 1976 and was part of the FA Cup-winning squad in 1973. With a full men’s squad made of 18 vicars drawn from across the country, the team are also well on the way to building the women’s squad.

The Church of England football team are scheduled to play in the National Christian Football Festival in Wales in July before embarking upon a European tour which will include the big derby match against the Vatican national team in Rome later this year.

Of course the connection between faith and football is nothing new. More than a dozen of the clubs who have played in the Premier League have church origins and this season’s league cup final will be played between two teams both founded as church clubs. Aston Villa were founded in 1874 by four members of a local Wesleyan Chapel cricket team who wanted to keep their Villa Cross team together during the winter months.

Six years later in 1880 Anna Connell, the daughter of the Revd. William Connell of St Mark’s Church in West Gorton, along with two church wardens, sought to respond to the increasing problems of alcoholism and gang violence in the area by setting up a church football team which is today known as Manchester City Football Club. But the links between football and faith are far from historical. The Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp regularly speaks about his own Christian faith. “To be a believer, but not to want to talk about it – I do not know how it would work! If anyone asks me about my faith, I give information. Not because I have claim to be any sort of missionary. But when I look at me and my life - and I take time for that every day - then I feel I am in sensationally good hands.”

It’s unlikely that any in the CofE’s football team will play against the likes of Villa, Liverpool or City but that is to miss the point. The church team are passionate about football and excited to see how it can be used for outreach into their various communities in the same way that those first church teams served the people of their towns and cities. As the prophet Isaiah once wrote: “ How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”