I am a religious fundamentalist. And I have no doubt that because you are reading this article you are too. We may have our differences, socially, culturally, and economically. We may be from different countries on different continents all over the world, but we are bound by our irrational fanaticism for the objects of our faith. The word fundamentalism has variably been applied to Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Judaic and even secular environmentalist and animal rights groups. And now you can be added to that list. Because you are a football fan.
Do you find yourself regularly daydreaming of past glories? Do you often suffer a burning sense of entitlement to have those past glories restored? So do most religious fundamentalists. Have you ever found yourself defending your team in a heated football-related debate, in such a passionate way that you’re treading a fine line between assertiveness and outright violence? If you find yourself nodding your head guiltily in agreement with these questions then you need to have a long hard look at yourself. If you have also been known to explode in a public place, in an apoplectic fit brought on by some incoherent refereeing decision that defies all rationality and common sense, then you need help. I need help. We’ve turned into soccer-cide-bombers, prone to bouts of brief but all-consuming rages against our fellow man over the faintest of slights against our adopted deities.
We spew out the most atrocious bile against the other factions of our footballing brethren in the most hurtful and hilarious ways we can conceive of. For example, here is a selection from a conversation that took place between two good friends after Manchester United had been knocked out of the Champions league by Real Madrid recently. This is an actual conversation, not a word altered, and between two genuine best friends, one a Utd fan, the other Liverpool. After the initial gentle slagging, the still emotionally tender United fan, let’s call him Alex reminds the Pool fan, we’ll name him Bren, that at least we’ve (Utd) gotten this far, so B. replies:
B We won it 5 times, we won it five times, in Istanbul we won it five times!
A 20 titles 9 FA Cups
A Plus at least our fans did not do a Hillsboro
B Are you serious with that comment because if you are you are a stupid prick. Liverpool fans were cleared of all blame but you’re too stupid to know that. Tried having a laugh but you stoop too low. Cunt.
A Yea whatever. We all know who did it.
This is a brief but perfect, and quite hilarious example of how desensitised we have become to each other’s sensibilities when blinded by the affections we have for our own particular niche within the football firmament. The roles could easily be reversed, transferred, modified to refer to Munich 1958, Heysel 1985 or the Ibrox disaster 1971, and numerous other football related tragedies. Football, like politics and religion, has the capacity to unite and divide in equal measures. Once you have been indoctrinated into the faith it is difficult to recognise an opposing point of view. Defending your team/player is often akin to spitting in the face of reason and pushing the self-destruct button on that pleasant evening you’d been enjoying with your mates. Such is the life of the football fundamentalist. At least we can put ourselves, and our friendships back together after our occasional explosions, unlike our religious counterparts!
There are other more obvious aspects to consider in the context of football’s new-found religious status (admittedly bestowed by myself).The Churches we worship at come in all shapes and sizes, from 80,000 seater stadiums, to the 50 inch plasma shrines we keep in our homes. We pour over the prophets in holy texts in all their red-top or broadsheet glory, or at the click of a mouse. Occasional long distances pilgrimages to foreign places of worship. Ritual chanting and singing, in praise or admonishment, at these said places of worship, the worshipping of relics (one of the original FA Cups was sold for €550,000 in 2005) and the idolisation of the saints in the game all have distinctly religious connotations.
With the secular world growing and the regular church-going population in decline in the western world it seems that we are filling the spiritual and communal void left behind with sport. One sport in particular; The Beautiful Game. Interestingly, one of the only westernised countries in the world that has seen an increase in regular church attendance is the USA, where football has mysteriously failed to get off the ground, even after a number of valiant crusades!
Once you join the football fraternity it is relatively easy to succumb to the lure of fanaticism. What is it about the game that draws us all under the warmth of this security blanket, once we’ve cast off the sack-cloth of formal religious faith? Is it the sense of identity that being associated with something bigger than you offers? Is it the sense of community among the fellow followers of your chosen sect? Or is it the common language of football, a universal language that can build bridges between different races and nationalities, even closing the ever shrinking gap between the generations? Amazingly, it is a combination of all of these factors that unites fans the world over, creating a leviathan of soccer-nuts that continues to grow and grow.
Anyone who has been to a football match, anywhere in Europe, will have noticed the extremists in attendance. These people are the clearest example of someone who actually defines himself (this person is a male 99% of the time) by the football team he supports. Everything this person does in his life outside of his 9 to 5 existence is probably in some way or another connected with his team. From the tattoos on his body, to his social life, birthdays, holidays, even weddings, will have some kind of football related connotations.
While he of course is an extreme example, he does help in some way to explain how we all use the teams we follow to define ourselves. Whether you are United or Liverpool, Barcelona or Madrid, River Plate, Sao Paulo, Munich, Milan or Derry City; that is who you are and it never changes. While friends are made and lost, women come and go, and even people closest to us pass away, but our club remains constant. This may explain why football, and other sporting institutions, can become such an important part in forming our identity.
This sense of identity is moulded further by the community of like-mined people that attend “church” every week. Whether it is with thousands of others (if you follow a big club) singing “hymns” in the stadiums; or if it is just in the pubs, clubs and homes of millions around the world; you are part of it. A community of incomprehensible proportions that you may never consciously acknowledge, but is always there, whether you ponder it, ignore it or if you never even consider it, it remains. And within this community there is a common language that we are all comfortable with, even in languages we don’t understand. Anyone who has been to an international tournament will attest to that. Or if you’ve travelled abroad and find yourself thousands of miles from home, in a pub with a bunch of strangers, isn’t it so much easier if they talk football? Even if they don’t speak English or German or French at least you can communicate through football.
This common language of phrases and gestures has the capacity to break-ice, break down barriers and build bridges between people of different nationalities, religions and races. It even has the capacity to bridge the gap that often exists between the generations. Most Irish fathers of a certain generation would, to put it mildly, generally be a little reticent when expressing emotion with their sons, and often these generations will have their differences. But I bet most of you readers could always talk about football or sport in general, with your dads. It remains the common language between father and son, uncle and nephew, and granddad and grandson. You see it at games and sports events at all levels every week. It is a family affair. Everyone is comfortable, most people are happy, much happier than the families at regular churches and mosques and synagogues anyway. In my own insulated Irish Catholic experience anyway. Maybe you had lots of fun at your place of worship, mine was dull.
Football and other sports really can do all of this. Of course there is an underbelly to this utopian vision of the beautiful game that cannot be ignored. The blatant profiteering; the crassness of the marketing at the top level; the racism and violence in some parts of the world; former sky sports presenter Andy Gray; not to mention the scourge of the actual game itself: diving; these are just some of the evils that have corrupted top level football. But the potential to unite persists. The global popularity of football continues to grow. Sport’s capacity to bring people together is much much stronger than its rare tendency to divide them. This is the crux of the matter. You don’t have to be a fanatic or a fundamentalist to join this community of equals, (though it helps), and you definitely don’t have to commit to some ancient moral code. You don’t have to sing songs, eat pies, or wear a jersey. All you have to do is come along, literally or figuratively. Watch a game. Take in the show; the spectacle; the skill; the goals; the tackles; the spectaculars; the seven goal thrillers; the extra-time and the drama of penalties; and of course the shocking refereeing decisions. All you have to do is watch it, and like it, and you’re in the club. Where you take it from there is entirely up to you. To paraphrase the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly:
“Football is not like a religion, it’s more important than that”
by Paul Cahill (written in March 03)