Cultural critic Fr Martin Boland questions the idea that football has become a substitute for religion in secular modernity. His reflections were inspired by what he thinks might be the greatest television advert of all time, which you can see here:
He accepts that football has become a central part of the popular imagination:
Football, as the Write the Future advert shows, has mesmerised the collective cultural imagination, both locally and globally. But it wasn’t always so. Before the age of Sky TV and the big bucks of international oligarchs, football attracted a loyal, enthusiastic following but there remained a great mass of people who considered the game as a prehistoric pastime, a sporting brontosaurus on its way to extinction. Their image of football was of socially disenfranchised men passing through creaking turnstiles and standing on crumbling terraces beneath dishwater grey skies. Players with bad haircuts, bad shorts and bad prospects.
Then, the reinvention began. A makeover on an international scale. Football went designer and everybody (even those who knew next to nothing about football) wanted to wear the label, have others sniff the scent on them. New stadiums gleamed. Players, oiled and manicured, modelled Dolce & Gabbana underpants with the word Calcio on their waistbands. Football got funky and sexy. Football, if not writing the future, acquired the power to write big cheques for players, agents, managers and FIFA bosses. Serious fans may see this as a cynical exploitation of the game they love, but the public at large just want to buy in to brand Football.
But you don’t need the golden tongue of a poet to appreciate that, consciously or unconsciously, football has evolved into an athletic metaphor for the intangible delight and desolation of being alive. “Sport is more important than I ever gave it credit for, and athletes have a greater significance in everyday life than ninety-nine per cent of windbag politicians,” wrote the sports journalist, Duncan Hamilton, in his memoir of Brian Clough, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, “Red Smith, the best sports writer of his generation and most others, believed that “sport is life” – and I wouldn’t disagree. It can move people to rapture, like a glorious spring day. It can persuade people to identify with it, and with those who participate in it, in a way that few other things can. It matters. It stays with us like the characters from a great novel.”
But he doesn’t buy the idea that football fans are finding a release for their transcendent longings when they sit down in front of the box with a beer and a bowl of nachos:
Football has also acquired a metaphysical dimension in the contemporary mind. It has become a cliche to say that as “the Sea of Faith” began “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” so football filled the spiritual void and provided religious consolation. According to the late Catalan writer, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, football is “a post modern religion, in that it is perfectly in tune with the commercial needs of mankind, intrinsically linked to business and consumerism. Its cathedrals are stadiums, its gods footballers, its faithful the millions of fans who not only participate in this ritual every matchday, but practise their faith on a daily basis, thinking about and reflecting on the deeds of their gods.”
This kind of idea and language is culturally popular, but it is also fundamentally flawed and excessive. Football’s horizons remain narrow and earthbound, whereas religion seeks that which is transcendent and ministers the grace for people to break free from the gravitational pull of earthly powers to seek the heavens. Football is no religion.
But football can be religious. Players making the sign of the cross as they come out onto a pitch. Players gesturing to heaven and some higher power when they score a goal. The Brazilian, Kaká (currently playing for Real Madrid) famously removing his jersey to reveal an “I Belong to Jesus” t-shirt and using the final whistle as a call to prayer. “God Is Faithful” is stitched onto the tongues of his boots and he persuaded teammates to reveal “Jesus Loves You” t-shirts in the postmatch celebration following Brazil’s 4–1 win over Argentina in the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup final. Kaká is evangelical about his faith. He lives on a win and a prayer.
What does this link between football and religion tell us? Exaggerating the importance of this link can only leads to skewed judgements. For every footballer with religious leanings, there will be countless others who simply enjoy the rituals of the changing room and the superstitious charms that they hope will bring them victory. As with any group of people, some will be religious, some nominally or culturally so and some not at all. If there is anything to learn from such links, it is that football has acquired a defining role in our cultural behaviour and attitudes. These coming weeks in South Africa are about to prove that.
I’m not sure about this critique of ‘football as religion’. Religion is defined in terms of the search for a transcendent meaning, for whatever might take you beyond the limitations of earthly life. But if you see religion instead as a quest for ultimate meaning, a commitment to a goal that drives and defines your life, then it seems clear that this can be found any number of non-transcendent pursuits – including football. It may be that the pursuit at hand is ‘ultimately not ultimate’ (forgive the awkward phrase), but like any idol it can act in the present frame of reference as a thing of religious significance.
I must go back and read Nick Hornby’s fabulous Fever Pitch, which convinced me at the time that football is indeed a modern substitute for religion, at least sociologically and psychologically – even if the transcendent longings are not ultimately fulfilled.