God squad: footballing priests take to the pitch

Published by The Times

If anyone could rely on the hand of God to provide a crucial goal, it would be the Church of England’s first official football team, founded by an ex-professional from Iran who is now a priest in Sunderland.

The newly-formed Archbishop of Canterbury FC will be made up exclusively of priests. They are already in talks to play international fixtures against sides from the Vatican and the Lutheran church in Germany.

The team’s captain, the Rev Pouya Heidari, 34, played football at under-23 level in his home city of Shiraz in southern Iran, playing for teams including Mersad Shiraz FC and training with Paykan FC, which now plays in the Persian Gulf Pro League.

Mr Heidari was heading for a career in the sport before his conversion to Christianity. His work in Iranian churches “endangered my personal safety” and led to him being put on a “blacklist” in his home country.

He fled Iran aged 24 and settled in Britain, where he was selected to train for the priesthood in Durham. “While in Durham doing my ordination training, I was club captain of St John’s College and worked with a friend to organise men’s and women’s teams. I saw a few vicars in training playing at a very good level and that gave birth to the idea for a church team.”

The church already has a successful cricket team in the Archbishop of Canterbury XI, which holds a 3-2 lead over a Vatican XI in the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Ashes. There has never been a football team, however.

Mr Heidari said: “There was definitely a market for a football team. I could see the impact of football on the local community and football is huge in Sunderland. I saw that football could offer a hand of friendship to people of all faiths and none.”

The priest recruited Maurice Hepworth, a full-back who was in Sunderland’s first team squad during their 1973 FA Cup-winning year, as a coach. He has been coaching for 35 years and has founded Christian teams.

“My job will be a bit of a Gareth Southgate, looking at who the players are, what the strengths are,” Mr Hepworth said. “But we will also look at the philosophy: they have to commit to outreach in the community.”

Mr Heidari approached the Archbishops’ Council to ask permission to found a team and has the blessing of the Bishop of Sherwood, the Right Rev Tony Porter, the church’s sporting ambassador. The team has a squad of 18 male priests with plans under way to form a women’s team.