Football – soccer in America – is the world’s most popular sport. With over three billion followers in the world, football has a larger following than Christianity, the world’s largest religion that has 2.2 billion followers (World Population Clock, 2017). This staggering statistic hints that football has a tremendous impact in people’s social lives.
As someone who has closely followed the game for the last 13 years, I have often asked myself this question: is football a religion or at least a quasi religion? According to Paul Tillich, a German philosopher and theologian, a quasi religion is an entity with unintended similarities to religion (Ford, 1966). Football resembles religion in how it gives people a collective identity and purpose and how it is experienced through interaction with others.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggests that religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices which unites its members under a collective identity (Coser, 1977). Football gives people a sense of collective identity just like religion. When national football teams play, they do not only play for a trophy only; they play to show pride in their identity. For example, the rivalry between Scottish and English national football teams is deeply rooted in historic political battles between these nations that stretches back to the 1800s (Frank Melley, 2013). Both countries are part of the United Kingdom, but their fiercely competitive nature is based on demonstrating the superiority of being Scottish or English. It is all about identity.
In addition, symbolic interaction is at the heart of football as it is in religion. Sociologist George Herbert Mead’s theory of symbolic interactionism states that the meaning of objects, events, gestures and behaviors comes from the interpretations people give them. If Sunday did not represent the day of Jesus’ resurrection, then it would not be any different from Thursday to Christians. A painting in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is not just a regular painting because Catholics attach divinity to it. This symbolic interaction is also present in the world of football. Football stadiums are not just regular playing grounds. They are often constructed with a deeper meaning attached to the architecture. For instance, in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the biggest stadium was built in the shape of a calabash, a vessel which is commonly used by the Zulu people of South Africa to carry water (McManus, 2016). The greatest players of the game are immortalized into statues that adorn stadiums in the same way statues of saints and prophets decorate the walls of most churches. Football stadiums, jerseys, statues and museums, are all symbols which enshrine the principles and traditions of the game.
The Soccer City Stadium in South Africa (top) was built in resemblance of a calabash (bottom)
Furthermore, these great players are not just patrons of the game; their lives are standards that football fans look to for inspiration and guidance. Sociologist Christian Smith (2003) states that humans are moral believing animals whose actions are guided by the cultural moral order they are part of. This theory also holds in the football community. Values such as hard-work, sacrifice and passion shown by the players on the pitch become lessons that parents teach their children and principles young kids admire. In turn the players become the priests that maintain a public image that portrays the admirable values of the game.
For some fans, the inspiration and admiration of some football players can end up boarding on idolatry. This is particularly evident in a documentary by Journeyman Pictures 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 worship 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.
Though the game of football strikingly resembles a religion, I will not go so far as to claim that it is one. There are fundamentals that it lacks for it to qualify as a religion. In Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman states that “Religion refers to concepts, rituals, experiences, and institutions that humans construct based upon their belief in the supernatural, otherworldly, or spiritual.” (Zuckerman 2008:154). Football lacks a faith system which is part of major world religions like Christianity, Islam or Judaism. It additionally lacks a supernatural entity which is a higher cosmic order that is the center of the followers’ existence. Football fans can have their personal religious affiliations but they do not believe the game is guided by a universal supernatural being. Football might not qualify as a religion but it resembles religion in a number of ways. This is why, like Paul Tillich, I would consider it a quasi-religion.
Coser, L. A. (1977.) Emile Durkheim – The Sociology of Religion. Retrieved April 04, 2017, from http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/socsi/undergraduate/introsoc/durkheim6.html
Ford, L. S. (1966). Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue. D. Mackenzie Brown. The Journal of Religion, 46(1, Part 1), 56-57.
Mead, G. H. (1963). Mind, self, and society: from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Journeymanpictures. “The Church of Maradona – Argentina.” YouTube. YouTube, 13 Dec. 2007. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.
Melly, F (2013,). Friendly? They don’t exist when England face Scotland… How time has created the oldest football rivalry. Retrieved April 04, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2391220/History-England-v-Scotland-rivalry.html
Moorhouse, H.f. “Football Hooligans: Old Bottle, New Whines?” The Sociological Review 39.3 (1991): 489-502. Web.
Smith, Christian. Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Zuckerman, P. (2010). Society without God: what the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.