Here’s a fact: the qualifying competition for the 2010 FIFA World Cup involved 204 countries – whereas the United Nations has only 193 member states. Football is the only truly global sport. It is not ‘just a game’. It is art, drama and even religion.
The Art of Football
Football is ‘the beautiful game’. To control a ball while running flat out, to be aware of the movement of team-mates and opponents, to decide in a split second where to pass the ball and to be able to execute the decision perfectly, is exceptionally difficult. The talent of the world’s greatest players is to make this look simple. This is art.
Football fans wait for moments of balletic skill, when a player exhibits such speed and power, ball-control and balance that spectators catch their breath. Sometimes, in football, it is a feat of individual genius which inspires the fan: mesmerising dribbling skills, a deft back-heel, an acrobatic shot, a sweetly timed tackle or interception. But what makes most fans purr with greatest satisfaction is the intricacy of slick teamwork: individuals working together, acting in concert, as if responding to a common impulse, somehow synchronised, creating a shared work of art.
This art can be delicate. Some of football’s finest players have been blessed with incredible finesse. But speed and power and acute spatial awareness are integral to the art of football. The anthropologist Desmond Morris reckons these qualities reveal the tribal origins of the game. Football is, he says, a celebration of the arts of hunting and of battle. The growth of women’s professional football in Britain, and the increasing attempts by clubs to market themselves to families cannot be ignored; but it is still hard to escape the fact that the beauty offered on the football pitch is savoured most by men. The caricature of the male football ‘fan’ is the hooligan: destructive, violent and abusive. But for most fans who are men, football is one way they are able to express their appreciation of beauty.
The Drama of Football
It’s amazing how often (in almost any sport) the outcome of a match or a tournament feels scripted. Occasionally a football match is literally ‘fixed’, usually by an international betting syndicate. But mostly, the drama in football is innocent. Matches which are subject to nobody’s control (not even the referee’s), unfold in ways that leave spectators enthralled at the apparent scripted-ness. Plot lines are familiar, and biblical: there’s ‘David and Goliath’ (in which a weaker team defeats a stronger one, especially in cup football, in an act of ‘giant-killing’); ‘the coming of the Messiah’ (in which a hero signs for a new club, or returns from injury, makes an immediate impact on the team and leads it to success); ‘Judas returns’ (in which a hated betrayer, player or manager, comes back to torment a former club, consigning them to humiliating defeat); and ‘the Resurrection’ (in which a team snatches improbable victory from the jaws of defeat). When Liverpool beat AC Milan in the Champions League final of 2005, to win on penalties after being 3-0 down at half time, newspaper match reports asked ‘Who wrote the script?’. It’s a common question in the mind of the football fan.
Like every kind of drama, football draws in its spectators and moves them. But the reverse is true as well. In football the fans also move the players. One reason why sport makes especially good theatre (apart from the fact that the performance is sheer improvisation within limited rules), is that its fans are partisan. There are two opposing sets of supporters, each with the capacity to contribute not just to the fortunes of a club, but even to outcome of a match.
In our society, football moves many people (again, especially men) more effectively than anything else. When I was a vicar in Gateshead, I found it sobering to see the same men who sat so impassively in the back pews in church at baptisms and funerals, then singing, embracing and weeping on the terraces of Newcastle United. They may not easily ‘get in touch with their emotions’ at home, at work or in church; but they did it at the match. And when those football fans wept tears of joy or sorrow, I wondered if the immediate cause was just a catalyst to release emotions relating to all life’s joys and sorrows.
The Religion of Football as Religion
If a person’s ‘god’ is the thing that gives meaning to their life, from which they get a sense of identity, which shapes their behaviour and around which their life revolves, then a ‘religion’ is a corporate, institutional expression of that thing. In these terms, football – or football-supporting – is for many fans a religious activity.
Besides, the word ‘religion’ comes from a Latin root meaning ‘to bind together’: and since for many fans their club is their primary community, football must be their religion. It is their team which gives them their sense of belonging.
Fans identify themselves with a club and keep up this allegiance for years: it becomes part of who they are, not only on match days, not only during the football season, but at all times and in all places. When Sir Bobby Robson finally achieved his lifelong ambition to manage Newcastle United, he told the press (with a reference to the team’s playing colours), ‘If you cut me, I bleed black and white’. It’s a belonging expressed in the wearing of replica kits not just to games, but about town or on holiday abroad.
But the belonging is also expressed more spontaneously and fleetingly on match days and in extreme moments of exhilaration or despair. In such moments, fans testify to a mystical oneness with their companions. Honest! Many football fans know the experience, carried away by the ecstasy or agony of a particular moment, of hugging a complete stranger. That moment of ecstatic ‘connectedness’, of complete mutual recognition and understanding, amounts to a spiritual experience.
Of course, football has its dark side. The amount of money in the game, and in the pockets of elite players, is obscene. There are still tribal hatreds dividing fans at all levels. Hooliganism remains a social problem associated particularly with football. While football has had some success addressing racism in the game, the same cannot be said of sexism and homophobia. Football players are often poor role models on and off the pitch.
But for all that, in its art, its drama and its spirituality, football is not just a game. It could even be said to offer glimpses of the glory of God.
Pete Wilcox, Lichfield Cathedral, June 2010