Pray tell me: Is football a religion?

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Suresh Nair

WHOEVER said football is a religion was probably right.

Moses (Victor) plays for Chelsea. Mohamed (Salah) scores regularly for Liverpool, Jesus (Gabriel) wears Manchester City colours and Fiji national team skipper is Krishna (Roy).

Hold on…Southampton’s nickname is Saints and Manchester United is full of Red Devils!

I had a good laugh.

But seriously, we’re increasingly deserting the church, mosque, temple or synagogue in favour of the pitch. Players are revered like Gods, the stands are the pews, football is the new religion, and here’s why.

It was the national anthem that did it for me.

The sight, before any big match from England to Ethiopia, Mexico to Malaysia or Australia to Argentina, of crowds of fans, hands raised to the skies, some of them with eyes closed.

They are singing their hearts out (and, as it happens, imploring God’s salvation, though the words were probably irrelevant), it looked for all the world like worship in a holy place.

Admittedly, there are many football-fanatic Christians who even tend to wear their crosses round their necks rather than on their faces.

But otherwise it might easily have been a charismatic praise meeting where an unusual proportion just happened to be in red and white.

As someone who has closely followed the game for the past four decades, I have often asked myself this question: Is football a religion or at least a quasi religion? I believe that football resembles religion in how it gives people a collective identity and purpose and how it is experienced through interaction with others.

It may seem odd, to equate religion with football or any sport entertainment but it must be understood that prior to mass communications, religious ceremonies were a source of entertainment for ordinary people.

They rarely attended a theater or traveled to a sporting event, says Father Richard Leong, who preaches at a Tampines church.

FAITH AND DEVOTION

He says sports and religion may get categorised separately but their intersection is difficult to miss.

He adds: “The similarities between sport fandom and organised religion are rather striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: Faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”

Yes, you got to sometimes concede that football, as the world’s No 1 sport, is a religion.

It doesn’t just look like worship. It has taken over almost all the patterns of global life and behaviour that used to belong to religion.

With over three billion followers in the world, football, on record, has a larger following than Christianity, the world’s largest religion that has 2.2 billion followers. This staggering statistic hints that football has a tremendous impact in people’s social lives.

Yes, football provides the ritual of a weekend gathering for those who are truly committed. Those who are less devout can stay at home and watch Match of the Day, football’s Songs of Praise.

Yes, praise the good Lord, football offers its adherents the annual calendar of fast and feast to shape their lives like the church year used to.

TRIBALISM OF RELIGION

I have to admit that football has inherited all the tribalism of religion, giving followers something to belong to, bringing nations and communities together, and uniting them against the enemy – whether in physical violence or just chant.

Looking back, football has liturgy (“They think it’s all over…”), mysterious language (4-4-2, set pieces, sitting midfielders), songs of praise (“There’s only one David Beckham”) – and the terraces have even commandeered the church’s tunes.

Well, let’s argue on these lines: If ritual may be entertaining, then entertainment, as experienced in a sports stadium, may be ritualistic. Fans wear the team colours and carry its flags, icons, and mascots. Then there is repetitive chanting of team encouragement, hand-clapping, booing the other team, doing the wave, and so forth.

“The singing of an anthem at any big football event likely has similar psychological effects as the singing of a hymn in church,” says die-hard Malaysian sports fan Victor Joseph from Kuala Lumpur. “As a group, football fans are fairly religious, according to research. It is also curious that as religious attendance rates have dropped off in recent decades, interest in sport spectatorship has soared.

“Moreover, research has debunked several stereotypes about sports fans that seem incompatible with religiosity. Fans are not lazy. Nor are they particularly prone to violence. Male fans do not have bad marriages.”

Indeed, some scholars believe that fans are highly committed to their favoured teams and stars, like Brazil and Argentina or Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, in a way that gives focus and meaning to their daily lives. In addition, football spectatorship is a transformative experience through which fans escape their humdrum lives, just as religious experiences help the faithful to transcend their everyday existence.

MAGIC OF MARADONA

For some global fans, especially in South America, the inspiration and admiration of some football players can end up boarding on idolatry.

This is particularly evident in a documentary which describes how a football fan-base in Argentina officially started a church in memory of a great Argentine footballer called Diego Maradona.

In this ‘Church of Maradona’ Diego is worshipped like a God. His life is considered a template which provides guidance for the followers in the same way Jesus’ life is template for a Christian. This is obviously an extreme case of admiration but this goes to show football creates a community where people can find purpose and guidance.

Football even has its sacraments, says former award-winning Singapore coach Jita Singh. He says: “There’s the ceremonial bathing where defeated teams and disgraced players can wash away the stain of their fall – perhaps after televised confession and repentance.

“There are sports specialist schools these days where, as in church schools, children can study in an environment that nurtures the values, principles and knowledge of football.”

In my opinion, although football and religion are similar in these ways, it is important to remember that what is often considered the defining feature of religions is that they are concerned with cosmology.

That is how the universe is and/or with the supernatural (a god, several gods or ancestor spirits).

In football or most sports, this isn’t obviously the case. Many people that go to football games may have views about cosmology and the supernatural, but those views aren’t usually given by the sport itself. They are independent of it.

At his induction as player manager of the Church of England in 1991, George Carey quoted a saying of the great Liverpool guru Bill Shankly: “Some people think football’s a matter of life and death. I can assure them it is much more serious than that”.

Probably the moral of the story? Almost every faith is almost as much a religion as football.

Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist. He sincerely feels the religious capacity of football as billions of fans live for football, believe in their teams and find the greatest sense of their life in this No 1 sport.