Surreptitious slogans: I Belong to Jesus is a visual survey of a rich footballing sub-culture
For a world so marked by advertising slogans, technical jargon and the waffling of commentators, football is conspicuously devoid of personal engagement between players and fans.
This is, in part, down to a 2014 FIFA ruling that banned players displaying messages on their kits after scoring – whether personal, political or professional – and which carried punishments of fines and suspension.
As Craig Oldham and Rick Banks’ lovingly compiled new book, I Belong to Jesus, shows, this practice was a rich, extensive tradition of self-expression; visually and descriptively collected in a publication that acts as palimpsest of collective, sometimes fractious, memories (and meticulously designed to boot).
Take, for instance, Robbie Fowler’s 1997 display of pro-docker sentiment. In 1995, a tumultuous dispute between the Liverpool dockers and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company led to the sacking of a number of workers, who fought for two years to have their jobs reinstated (garnering a wealth of press and media support in the process). In a match against Norway’s SK Brann, Fowler and Steve McManaman – then Liverpool FC strikers – both wore undershirts with bastardised Calvin Klein logos professing solidarity with the cause. Fowler, scoring first, revealed his during the match. Duly fined by FIFA, he won the lifelong respect of the local working class community (even the Everton fans among them).
I Belong to Jesus features a wealth of similar case studies, under the chapter headings of ’Politics’, ’Religion’, ’Personal Matters’ and ’Football Folklore’ (though covering topics as diverse as social awareness, the environment, war and family). Providing a ’visual narrative of perhaps one of the last real, personal, unchecked forums and genuine connections between player and supporter’, say the authors, the book features coded outbursts from players as auspicious as Mario Balotelli, Ian Wright, Paul Pogba, Billy Sharp, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and, the inspiration for the book’s title, Kaka.
Published in a limited edition (thread sewn, bound with an armband and resembling a referee’s notebook), I Belong to Jesus is proof that, even for non-football fans, the beautiful game can carry truly meaningful messages.