Football is played by hundreds of millions in over 200 countries worldwide. It is estimated that over a billion people tuned in to watch the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany in 2014. It undoubtedly connects the masses: the likelihood is that, regardless of where you are on Earth, you’ve heard of Cristiano Ronaldo, you’ve heard of Manchester United and you might even have heard how badly our national team did in the Euros. This made me wonder, what else connects this many people? The answer was simple: religion. Throughout history and still nowadays, a religion still brings millions, and in some cases, billions together. However, can we go as far by saying football is a religion?
The obvious place to start is, how do we define ‘religion?’ One of the dictionary definitions is ‘a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.’ My friend, who actively goes to Church, says ‘the belief in and reverence for a supernatural power.’ In comparison, my Religious Studies teacher thinks that it is ‘more than just enquiries about God’ and that it is ‘having an identity, living in a shared community and following certain religious practices.’ This means that ‘religion’ can have a subjective definition, but mainly follows the idea of being interested in or worshipping something. Is that not what people do with football?
I could say I have had a personal experience with this, to an extent. I remember, some years ago, going to a cup match with a friend. The team I was ‘supporting’ was against a squad who were several divisions higher. I recall the opposite team scoring and a two, three second period where the crowd deflated. However, almost as quickly as the noise had stopped, it erupted again with a greater magnitude than I had ever heard before: there was this overwhelming belief that this team could (and eventually would) go on and come back from this. What struck me was that, there was such a deep-rooted belief and support for this team, so similar to the deep-rooted following in a religion, in a deity or in a practice. The Bill Shankly quote is a wonderful one for me: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life or death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ The fact is, in numerous cases, this is true. What is more important than life or death? Again, I find myself going back to that answer: religion. Some may say that is exaggerating but for those fans who have stuck with a club for years, it is simply not the case.
There’s the issue of the following. A mainstream religion has millions and billions of supporters. According to FIFA statistics back in 2007, over 270 million played The Beautiful Game worldwide. This would make it the fifth largest ‘religion’ on the globe, approximately 100 million below Buddhism.
One of the main arguments against this regarding the money in football. I accept that. Another argument could be along the lines of football not having a God or deity, but again I would say that the game could just be a metaphor for such a power.
I will finish on my main point: football connects people, religion connects people. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have been in as well as overheard where the opening line was ‘did you watch the game yesterday?’ or ‘how about that goal?’ Calling football a ‘religion’ might be going too far, but if someone tells me that football is their life, I can and always will, understand that.
Despite all of this, the answer can still be no. The minute we brand something with such a large following, as a ‘religion’, what will be next? Will Justin Bieber be the next deity? Donald Trump? Will there be a worshipping of chocolate? There could well be.