Mike Skinner of The Streets once waxed lyrical of Europe’s two leading narcotics, alcohol and Christianity. It is with no irony that football represents a similar – if not quite as long-standing – addictiveness for Europe at large.
Ascertaining ‘proof’ for such an assumption may appear problematic, yet, given the consistent presence, facilities and coverage that football generates this assumption, I believe, stands true. In England – it is unrealistic to consider this question globally via this medium – the nature of Europe’s primary interests is intensified. This is a country that loves sport, but without doubt needs football.
…on this rock I will build my congregation’ (Matthew 16:18)
Cease to be wary of the potential for unease within an ‘easy answer’ however, and football may indeed look to mimic the closed self-assuredness of religion. According to Paddy Vipond’s ‘The Hand of God: Football as a Religion’, the ritualistic nature of the author’s footballing experience is best understood when paired off with the structured ideals of organised religion. Unlike the opening quote from the Christian gospel of Matthew in which Jesus reveals the implementations necessary for a sturdy construction, I believe Vipond’s argument embodies the plight of ‘the foolish man who built his house on the sand’ (Matthew 7:26). When prodded at all, it will fall apart.
From an objective standpoint the article pursues the perceived commonalties that football and religion share. We are presented with the ceremonial timing of a match/service, the brotherhood – it seems that football and most organised religions may share some ideals when it comes to the appropriate presence of women anyway – of fans/followers coming together at this sacred time to sing their sacred chants/hymns, and how all of this is but a segmented understanding of the totality that these events have in the life of a football fan from now until – in Vipond’s case anyway – King Kenny presumably greets him at an otherworldly ‘Shankly Gates’. It can’t but be re-emphasised that this all seems a bit too easy. It is my counter to Vipond that football, far from being an entity that one should consider in tandem with religion, is in fact the symbolic liberator of religion’s associated tyranny.
Vipond’s portrayal of one’s football club being of unquestionable importance is a fair assessment of many. Similarly, the hostility and adoration that football can generate is an irrefutable fact. However, the tenuous links with which these opinions find their way back to religion is a sideways step. It is human nature to feel comfort in that which is familiar and feel perturbed or even angered by that which is strange. It is in the channelling of these human emotions and experiences that I find such a chasm to appear between football and religion. Yes, as Vipond mentioned, you may go to a football stadium as you go to a place of spiritual worship, yet, rarely in a mosque or a Christian cathedral will the dominant faith be supplemented by a small selection of devout ‘others’.
It is in religion’s nature to vehemently separate the known from the unknown, or, when feeling particularly adventurous one may witness religion’s attempts to convert. As Vipond mentioned, the majority of those questioned would openly refute their religion as opposed to questioning the dedication they have to their football club. It is in this fact that the crux of the issue lies. Football, like but certainly not in proportion to religion, has generated violence between its followers. However, the overwhelming power of football is its communal nature in ultimately spurning the ‘differences’ and opening discussion and transition. While some religious bodies tentatively attempt to pursue ecumenism as a means of improving interfaith dialogue, football is – as Vipond displayed to us in Syria – a language that requires no ‘right’ answer but allows for each individual an opinion in accordance with their status as an individual in a willing collective.
It is with this in mind that I think we locate the discrepancy in Vipond’s argument. Football, far from being anything to do with religion, has everything to do with faith. While many will question the validity of organised religion as they will FIFA or UEFA, fewer are so vigorous in reneging their faith altogether. We cease to love the rulers but are damned if that will take us away from that which we know are the true inheritors of. To understand football as ‘a religion’ or as an associated partner is to lose all sense of what football brings to the world that religion never truly can; unity. It is not without its detractors, complications and problems, however, if it must be looked upon comparatively I much prefer the assessment of Dmitri Shostakovich and Tony Waddington. Although I doubt the two have ever met, Shostakovich’s words echo the shared insight of both men; ‘Football is the ballet of the masses.’ If we must consider football in relation to anything else, it is on this quotation that I will happily align myself.