The Hand of God: Football as a Religion

Maradona World Cup Trophy

I have often noticed the commonality between religion and football, and I have not been alone in doing this. Peter Evans, from the National Football Museum, once called football “the religion of the masses”, and it is not hard to see why.

My holy day is a Saturday, the service starts at 3pm, and I make sure I am in suitable attire for it. The gods of Rodgers, Gerrard and Suarez are worshipped, the hymns of Anfield Road and You’ll Never Walk Alone are sang, and I gather with my brothers as our icons attempt to create more legendary tales and stories.

Our football clubs are considered sacred to us. When we see somebody sporting one of their kits, we consider them a friend, when we contemplate a tattoo, our mind turns to our team, and when someone bad-mouths one of our teams players, we defend them to the hilt, despite having never even met them.

Just as religion can unite people, so can football. Across continents, over internet pages and in no-man’s land between the trenches. But just as religion and football can unite, so too can they divide. Saying that you prefer football over rugby, may well win you some supporters in Swansea, but stating that you are a supporter of Cardiff will soon see your support dwindle.

I was in Syria 16 months ago, spending some time with some Free Syrian Army soldiers and though I spoke no Arabic, and they spoke no English, we conversed and connected by talking about football. The duel between Barcelona and Real Madrid was a hotly debated topic whilst I was there. Messi versus Ronaldo, Ramos versus Pique, Casillas versus Valdés. Even in that war torn country, surrounded by suffering, the soldiers took the time to follow both of their religions, Islam and football.

Though I believe that football could, without too much trouble, be elevated to the level of religion, Eric Cantona seems to take it one step further. Rather than saying football is like a religion, he suggests that it is even above that. Stating: “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion… but never, never, can you change your favourite football team”.

Could it be that the most sacred of sacred, the things that we love and worship the most, can not actually compare to our love and worship of football? Recent research conducted by The Leadership Factor suggests just that.

In a national poll, it was found that 74.9% of the football season-ticket holders questioned, would rather change their religion than their football team, with only 10.2% feeling the opposite way. An incredible statistic when you think about it.

Diego Maradona stated that “football isn’t a game or a sport, it’s a religion” and within our society it would be hard to argue against that statement. As the number of churchgoers falls year on year, football clubs are having to expand their stadiums in order to seat more spectators. Songs of Praise, which is the most popular religious programme on British TV, was receiving 3.4 million viewers each week in 2009. Whilst Match of the Day was regularly getting close to 5 million.

Even among the less passionate and devoted fans, those without season tickets, 55.6% still said that they would rather change their religion than their football team. With only 17.9% saying the opposite.

The football calendar seems to bring shape to peoples lives, with the dates of the FA Cup final, the Champions League final and the local derby’s circled or highlighted. We follow our icons on social media, we copy their hairstyles, and we dedicate our lives to reporting, following or playing the game. Hundreds of years ago I would have been writing about the glories of  saints, or the miracles of a god, but now, here I am, writing about football. The role of football plays such a huge part of one of my best friends life, that on January 1st he does not celebrate New Years, he celebrates the opening of the transfer window.

This view of football as a form of religion perhaps explains why former players are so hated when they play for a rival team. These players are not just men that have gone to work at another business, these players are traitors. Just ask Luís Figo when he returned to the Nou Camp with Real Madrid, a fiery, hostile reception greeted him, and he may well have thought that he had stepped into a sort of footballing hell.

(Edit 28/4/2014: There is now a response to this post by another author, Football is not a Religion, but it does take faith.)

Paddy is an opinionated, cynical old man trapped in a twenty-something year olds body. An activist on both local and national events, and with articles focusing on topics as varied as democracy, class, tattoos and football, there is little that escapes his criticism. After spending time in the voluntary and charitable sector he is now walking the career path of journalism. You can find him @PaddyVipond or view his blog here.
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