The "religion" of football indebted to Christianity


From The Catholic Herald. By Patrick West When commentators issue the remark that “football is the new religion”, they usually do so derisively. This cliché is shorthand for saying that some people now take this sport too seriously, and that our society’s obsession with the beautiful game is infantile and silly.

In the manner that the sport is held dear, football’s resemblance to religion-proper is evident. Football fans have their ersatz cathedrals: their stadiums (or “theatres of dreams”). Promising or proven manager are labelled “messiahs”. Once-idolised players who controversially sign for a rival outfit are literally branded “Judas”. Supporters’ devotion to their team is unswerving and unconditional, and can consequently sometimes inspire violence. In this, football fandom often resembles a pastiche of Christianity.

Yet are these similarities merely cosmetic? Is it correct to dismiss football fanaticism as a vacuous and its similarities to religion superficial?

I would suggest not. Of course football as a sport has no intrinsic meaning. But the fact that people ascribe significance to it, in that there are many who afford ethical and spiritual purpose to football, suggests we should take it seriously. (By comparison, less intelligent atheists are often prone to say squabbles between Catholics and Protestants or Sunni and Shia are no better than those between Swift’s Little-Enders and Big-Enders: this ignores the fact that to the protagonists, these things matter.) And football’s ethical and spiritual debt to Christianity is more substantial than the cursory observations of a pub philosopher would suggest.

The misbehaviour of professional footballers in England – their infidelities off the field, their play-acting on it, and their conspicuous avarice – is often perceived to mirror a general moral malaise in society today. Yet the public’s dislike of their conduct illustrates the opposite – that, paradoxically, many people have an automatic sense of morality that is in the continuation in the Judea-Christian tradition: one that disapproves of mammon-worship, infidelity and dishonesty. Football reviles “cheating” of all varieties.

Back in the 1970s it was never regarded as taboo to be over-physical on the field of play – indeed the likes of Chelsea, Everton and Leeds United made it their hallmark – but feigning injury was unacceptable. The players of the 21st century may no longer feel inhibited in this area, but spectators certainly remain repelled by it – especially when footballers attempt to get an opponent sent off by writhing in synthesised agony or brandishing imaginary red cards towards the referee.

Exponents of “muscular Christianity” in the 19th century were responsible for establishing many football clubs (Southampton, for example, was established in St Mary’s Church of England YMA – hence their nickname, “the Saints”), which is why the antics of Chelsea’s Ron “Chopper” Harris or Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunters of Leeds United 40 years ago were not adjudged to transgress any moral code. Only when a perpetrator was perceived to be seeking to injure his opponent did he receive opprobrium.

Read the full story at The Catholic Herald.

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