Football: An Alternative Religion?

For a few weeks in the summer of 2018, England became a nation of believers. Devotees rushed to proclaim their faith in future glory as the English football team gave its followers cause for new hope. Capturing the mood, BBC News interviewed Jamie Richardson from Leeds, who related how an ‘epiphany’ during England’s victory over Panama persuaded him to get a tattoo that symbolised his belief in the team’s eventual triumph. To explain his commitment, Jamie turned to the story of God’s covenant with Noah: ‘God said to Noah, “you build it, and they will come”. He said to me, “you get it, and they will win”’. But what Jamie expressed was not only a product of temporary mass-hysteria: by drawing together religion and football, faith and fandom, he had hit upon a theme that had already captured the imagination of the British media before the World Cup fanaticism began.

During the season leading up to the 2018 World Cup, the i newspaper ran a series on ‘faith and football’. Several other magazines and broadsheets got in on the act, all of which pointed to a renewed interest in the relationship between football and religion. One cause of this trend might be the emergence of Liverpool Football Club’s Mohamed Salah as something of a cultural phenomenon: his Muslim faith has played a significant role in this meteoric rise to stardom. Salah, who allegedly received over a million votes in Egypt’s recent elections, has been praised for his philanthropic work, including paying for a new mosque in his home town. Saudi Arabia has even awarded him a piece of land in Mecca to recognise his role as an example to all Muslims.

But Salah is not alone in wanting to show his faith. Public displays of religious devotion on-pitch are becoming increasingly common in English football, adding to the sense that football and religion may not be as clearly distinct as assumed. The question is whether there is anything serious in this connection, and whether the football fan or religious believer stand to gain anything from this conflation of their respective domains.

Some of the language used by both sides certainly suggests an important affinity. The Facebook page Newcastle United is my religion, St James’ Park is my church is ‘liked’ by over fifteen thousand people, casting their stadium as a place of worship. When the much-loved manager Kevin Keegan arrived for a second spell in charge of Newcastle United in 2008, the club hailed it as the return of the ‘Geordie messiah’ – once again turning to religious language to capture the moment. More recently in an article in The Times, Rabbi Jonathan Romain joined this discussion from the perspective of faith communities, suggesting parallels between football memorabilia and the articles of faith, and between sacred hymns and the chants in the terraces. Clearly, there is a desire to make these connections, to find ways of describing the ‘beautiful game’ using terminology and rituals usually associated with the religious sphere. What is harder to determine is whether there is real substance behind these comparisons, as the tone in which they are written sometimes seems closer to irreverence than somber assertion.

The Facebook page Newcastle United is my religion, St James' Park is my church has over 15,000 'likes'.
The Facebook page Newcastle United is my religion, St James’ Park is my church has over 15,000 ‘likes’.

The tendency amongst religious communities is to treat such comparisons as flippant remarks that distract from the serious business of faith. In his work on Christianity and wider culture, theologian David Brown notes most clergy comment sarcastically on football becoming an ‘alternative religion’ . This situation is unlikely to be improved as FIFA – football’s governing body – is wracked by allegations of corruption, while the exorbitant fees payed for top players are attracting ever-increasing levels of criticism. Those such as Salah, who act on the basis of a strong social conscience informed by profound faith, seem to be swimming against a tide of greed, deceit, and incompetence. The awarding of the right to host the prestigious FIFA World Cup to Russia, and then Qatar, will also have done little to rid football of its image as an amoral, money-grabbing machine. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that some religious leaders express misgivings at attempts to tie their beliefs to the world of football.

Yet it is also possible to view this relationship in a far more positive light. Take, for instance, the many moments of silence observed to commemorate the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 in Liverpool Football Club’s Anfield stadium. Tens of thousands of fans participated  in carefully orchestrated moments of reflection, co-creating a silence enthused with grief and a passionate hope for justice. Here, the realm of liturgy and prayer does not seem so far removed. Something similarly profound can be observed at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park, where a series of plaques within the stadium complex pay tribute to the lives of loved ones whose ashes have been scattered on the pitch. The facilities manager described this practice – now ended despite angry protests – as a ‘sealing in’, leaving the deceased in the ‘hallowed turf’, and ‘protecting them for eternity’. If the design, rituals, and significance of a football ground can offer families the assurance of a loved one being protected in a sacred space for perpetuity, then perhaps the religious community should pay closer attention to this ‘alternative religion’.

 

Hillsborough memorial, Old Hay Market, Liverpool
Hillsborough memorial, Old Hay Market, Liverpool

The thoughtful use of architecture, space, and symbolism touches on several elements of religious tradition, adding depth to statements such as ‘St James’ Park is my Church’. It has also drawn a more sympathetic, engaged response from figures of authority within this tradition. In her maiden speech to the House of Lords in May 2016, Bishop of Newcastle Christine Hardman praised ‘places of pilgrimage such as Holy Island – or St James’ Park’.

Hardman’s willingness to embrace the idea of a football stadium functioning as a ‘hallowed’ site of religious significance is striking, and this sense of a strong affinity was also identifiable in the events surrounding the tragic death of Italian footballer Davide Astori aged 31 in March 2018. In a funeral service held at Santa Croce Basilica in Florence, thousands of football fans chanted while the coffin left the church flanked by banners bearing the symbols of the premier Italian football clubs. Here, the parallels Rabbi Romain observed – between sacred hymns and football chants, and between religious practice and fan devotion – are impossible to dismiss. For a moment, religious ceremony and football faith became indistinguishable, merging to form a single, stirring voice of grief.

If there are times when a tangible, meaningful bond is formed between football and religion, what does this mean in practice? Should all footy-mad fans rush to convert to their creed of choice, or should compulsory attendance at matches be imposed upon clergy, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders? Perhaps not. Instead, it could serve as a warning concerning what might be lost if all traces of religious vocabulary and symbolism were stripped from an increasingly secularised society. Being able to describe a returning manager as a ‘Messiah’, or a football pitch as ‘hallowed turf’ is invaluable when you are trying to do justice to the strength of feeling which football can provoke. The poet David Jones refers to a ‘lightening’ of linguistic resources caused by the gradual disappearance of religious language from everyday discourse. When this language is applied to events within football, it appears to show that his fears are relevant to much more besides poetry.

Football deals with the natural undulations of human life: the fluctuations between joy and agony, and between expectation and despair that shape all our experiences. The way religion lends itself to expressing these patterns shows how important words of belief can be to anyone trying to give voice to their thoughts and feelings, regardless of whether they subscribe to the dogma that accompanies them. There are undoubtedly elements within the machinery of the football behemoth that make it hard for those who want to afford the game moral or spiritual significance. But venality, corruption, and hypocrisy are hardly unknown within the ranks of believers, so these tests of faith could also be approached as a problem in common. The architecture, art, and rituals of religious traditions offer football models for embodying and communicating powerful shared convictions, just as the commitment and passion of the football fan could teach the believer something about the trials of holding to unconditional faith and irrational hope.