The beautiful game is perhaps the most powerful reflection of society that can be found in sport. Players’ actions and words resonate beyond the stands around the pitch, and we expect them to be our role models. Whether players like it or not, their influence is undoubtedly shaping our culture.
As Cyrille Regis stepped onto the turf at Wembley on the 23rd of February 1982 he was blazing a trail that transcended football. He became only the third black player to wear the three lions on his chest, and in doing so he faced opposition that was far from sporting. This was a time when racism in football was rife, often unchallenged, and unpunished. Cyrille was even sent a bullet in the post following his England call up.
It’s in this context that we can see the measure of the man Cyrille was, the player with God given talent who became a role model for many; the fearless player who refused to let racist abuse affect his game; and the transformed player who, as a Christian, displayed the humility of Christ in his relationships with others.
Cyrille grew up in an era without academies and performance pathways, when Ronnie Allen scouted him for West Bromwich Albion in 1977 he was working 8 hour days on a building site as an electrician as well as playing semi-pro football for Hayes. He was used to working so hard that life as a professional footballer in the top flight ‘First Division’ was initially boring. His talent was evident, scoring goals on his debut games in the League, League Cup and FA Cup.
Cyrille played as one of three black players at West Brom alongside Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson. At a time when the First Division had very few black players, to have three playing together in one side was virtually unheard of, and the three players became used to bananas being thrown on the pitch, monkey chants and all sorts of abuse. Brendon Batson said “What shocked me when I joined West Brom was the volume. The noise and level of the abuse was incredible. At times, it was almost like surround sound in the grounds. But it was such a regular occurrence, you almost got used to it.”
Yet the three played on, and Cyrille channelled his anger into his playing rather than directing it back at abusive fans. The bravery shown to continue playing every week under these conditions meant that young black players could have role models to look up to, and Cyrille’s fearless attitude on the pitch against this opposition is testament to his strength of character. Numerous premier league and international players were inspired by him; Brian Deane, Dion Dublin, Jason Roberts to name but a few. Linvoy Primus, former premier league player at Portsmouth said:
“As a footballer Cyrille inspired a generation of black players, but as a man he inspired a whole culture. It quickly dawned on me that Cyrille’s strong character, resilience and ability on the pitch was something I wanted to replicate even though we played in different positions. I didn’t think about Cyrille every time I played but all the footage I saw of him, helped reinforce what I needed to do to have a half decent career.”
Cyrille was human, however. The life that came with being one of the best-known footballers in the country brought with it new challenges. Having grown up in a family of seven, living in just two rooms, his success as a footballer opened a very different world to him, and he chased everything on offer. His England and West Brom teammate, Laurie Cunningham, was a close friend to Cyrille, and they often enjoyed wild nights out after matches. Laurie became the first British player to sign for Real Madrid, and, on a visit to Spain, Cyrille nearly lost his life in a car crash when Laurie fell asleep at the wheel. Brushed off as a lucky escape, neither of the two saw this as a reason to change their behaviour, but two years later Laurie died tragically in a similar accident. This lead Cyrille to question what he was chasing:
“Here was me and Laurie, fame, money, influence, power, cars, adulation, Laurie took nothing with him, so what’s life all about? Why am I fighting for all these things when I could have died two years ago?”
Playing football at the highest level, partying, numerous indulgences, none of them meant anything in the light of Laurie’s death, so Cyrille searched for meaning elsewhere. He started to attend church, and this is where he first came across Christians in Sport, meeting Brian Hewitt and admitting to him: ‘I believe in God, but I’m not committed.’ Having attended church for a few months, Colin Day, a Baptist minister came to his house and sat with him for five hours discussing the gospel and God’s love for Cyrille. Cyrille realised that to get to heaven he would need to be made sinless, he’d need to trust in Jesus to pay for his rejection of God, and he’d need to make God his first priority.
In his early 30s Cyrille committed his life to Christ. His faith did not resolve all his worldly problems, but it did bring real and lasting freedom. Cyrille said ‘When I became a Christian, I was free to be vulnerable,’ he could hold on to the fact that he had met Jesus and this became his foundation, he learnt to surrender control and trust God with his life.
We all look to strong characters for leadership, just as these players have cited Cyrille’s influence and example as vital to their own success. Leaders who come through real hardship are often the most influential, they change the game. It is at the cross of Jesus that we see the ultimate game changer, at the cross we see the measure of Jesus. Supremely powerful, yet humble to the point of dying to save those who hated him. Cyrille’s life is testament to the power God has to transform lives through Jesus, and the peace he offers to those who seek it in him.
“I meet people all the time, some famous, some not who are all looking for hope and peace. I have learned that money cannot buy peace of mind, so I simply tell people how I found hope and peace in God. The great thing about it is that anyone can have the peace that I have, you just need to know God.”
On the 14th of January 2018 Cyrille Regis passed away. He was a trustee of Christians in Sport, a legend of English football, and a committed follower of Jesus.
You can find out more about Cyrille's legacy trust at cyrilleregis.com
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