Is football a Quasi-Religion?

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.

FoootballAs 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.

Stadium one  calabash

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 Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 2.01.42 PMboarding 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.

References

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.

 

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9 thoughts on “Is football a Quasi-Religion?

  1. This is a really interesting post that brings to light the importance of quasi-religions in our own lives. I really appreciated how you note the purpose and guidance people can find through non-religious groups. By your definitions, couldn’t many things, not just football could be seen as almost religious? Like politics, music, cultural phenomena? You rightly counter it with quasi-religions lack of supernatural entities and higher power. Football is certainly a cultural phenomenon and something that should be more well known in the United States.

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    • You make a good point. A lot of things can take relate to religion in many forms eg music, politics etc. It is all about critically analyzing how these phenomena are intricately woven into the the fabric of people’s lives. I focused on football because I am more familiar with it but one can make a argument about the other things you mentioned.

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  2. I found this to be very enlightening especially considering how fluid the boundaries of religion can be. Growing up, my family and I made watching soccer a social event. We would dress up in our favorite player’s jerseys, we would prepare home-cooked meals, we would gather snacks, and we would gather around the television. After reading this post, I started to think of how all this fell under the religion umbrella. I mean, for instance, at churches prayer is a ritual much like soccer was for me. At church, everyone gathers to hear the words of worship and in my house, the sports commentator’s voice was what led us to believe. At church, god is idolized and in soccer, either Cristiano Ronaldo or Leonel Messi are (depending on your preferences). I know of a friend who thinks Wayne Rooney and Karim Benzema are the best. In this context, soccer could even be seen as polytheistic because it has more than one god. Analyzing soccer through a sociological and religious lens was genius!

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    • Yes!!!! Football drives people crazy. I relate to your experience with your family. My family is heavily committed and involved in this sport. My parents once coached two rival school teams and my mother’s team beat my dad’s. Even up to now we still laugh at my dad for losing to my mom who he taught how to coach. It is just this collective exuberance for the sport that we have as a family that makes it an important part of our lives.

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  3. It was really interesting to learn about the idea of a quasi religion in this post, and I think it would have been an interesting concept to explore in class all those times we were trying (and failing) to clearly define religion. I remember the day we talked about Durkheim’s theory of collective effervescence because it opened up the idea of finding the sacred in perhaps usually secular places. I agree with you that football cannot ultimately be defined as a religion, but this post made me think about what in my life is sacred, and what maybe bares some resemblance to a quasi religion. My participation in theatre, for sure, involves a similar set of rituals and rules, and has provided me with a community.

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  4. This post really spoke to me, as I have always followed sports religiously. I wonder, though, if your ideas are specific to football. I believe that all team sports have similar qualities. I think of my career in hockey and can relate it back to your post in that I have found something sacred in a seemingly secular activity. Hockey has influenced a large part of my life and in a lot of ways, has made me who I am today. The relationships I have formed, and the integrity and competitiveness that I have learned, have become somewhat of a religion to me.

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  5. I personally find the world of sports to be fascinating so reading your post was a real pleasure. I would agree that stadiums are like ‘holy grounds’ to many fans and players, so learning about the cultural implications behind the structure of the buildings was very fascinating. Lastly, I appreciated your thoughts on the ‘Church of Maradona’; the concept of establishing a religion off of a famous public figure seems outrageous but I know that people have done the same for other famous people as well. I think it really highlights how much the current culture idolizes and glorifies celebrity figures.

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  6. Tatenda, I love the connections that you made between football and religion. I especially liked your point about how players are worshipped and looked up to as if they were a god. I never really thought considered the ways that football could be a religion but the way you linked it to religion was excellent and very convincing.Your post was easy to follow and refreshing, and it made me think about my time abroad in Madrid this past year. As a football fan, you are probably well aware of the football scene there, but fans in Spain really take the very sport personally and defend it, well, religiously (pun intended) – sometimes going to extreme lengths. When Barcelona fans can to Madrid to support their teams, each team’s fans would sing anthems that talked about how their team was the best as if to try to convince the other team. Fights have even broken out in stadiums because someone supported an opposing team. For the reasons that you highlighted and this reason, I would definitely have to agree that football is a quasi-religion.

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  7. After reading this post, I was slightly confused about what would be considered a quasi-religion. According to your post, a “quasi religion is an entity with unintended similarities to religion”, but then technically anything that give people a collective identity, purpose, and is experienced in interaction with others would be a quasi-religion. In this case, would you say that capitalism is a quasi-religion as well?

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