Miracles exist in football: from the amazing 1966 World Cup run by the North Koreans to Istanbul 2005, it would seem that nothing is impossible in the sport. This ability to inspire and give hope is what makes watching and playing football a transcendent activity and why it evokes such passion amongst the multitudes of people who are in love with it. Marx famously decried religion as the opiate of the masses, but I am yet to see 60,000 people pay extortionate prices for a chance to see a sermon given at a Church as they would a football match. The parallels run much deeper than the shared characteristics of building hope and being an external source of happiness: for many, football is a kind of religion - both in a spiritual and a sociological sense.
As even the most pessimistic of fans will tell you, the beginning of every season does bring an unbridled sense of optimism and positive thinking. Maybe this is the year that your team will win the league, or the cup, or all of the trophies? Regardless of where your team finished the previous season - whether their form was delightful or dire - it is almost impossible not to believe. You may temper your expectations in public, but there is an inherent sense of sanguinity. This belief - no matter how illogical or misplaced - courses through the veins of every fan, even if it’s only ever so slightly for some. Much like a belief in a deity, it can be questioned and brought to heel, but there is an intrinsic resilience in the hope that one feels before every season, every game and every kick. Hope and belief are both key tenets of being religious and are the cornerstones of most forms of worship. Asking someone to suspend their critical faculties and their rationalistic self is a characteristic of the transcendent, and both football and religion follow this path. Sometimes, as Leicester City are currently proving, these outlandish beliefs even become realised.
This belief and hope is carried on the backs of the players. It is why we ascribe otherworldly characteristics to the very best - smothering them with superlatives. The top modern day players are demi-Gods in their own rights, living a life of unparalleled luxury, coveting for almost nothing (not that there aren’t players who suffer from all sorts of issues, but from a purely financial and social perspective they are as privileged as it gets). With this luxury there are some caveats: performing at a superhuman level on a consistent basis; an inability to live what some may perceive as a normal life; being held to an unconscionably high standard as they are pigeonholed in to the job of role models - all whilst being simultaneously abhorred and celebrated beyond their wildest beliefs. The idea of a modern day footballer as a prophet or God of the footballing religion is one that is grounded in reality, even if they act less-than-holy most of the time.
Even though we know they’re only human on a rational level, we still expect moments of magic. From being able to tip-toe out of a huddle of opposing players whilst retaining possession, to banging in a thirty-yard screamer to seal the result of a game, the moments that a player can deliver take on the appearance of the ethereal, even though something like it happens every weekend, in every top league (and a vast majority of lower leagues), all over the world. A belief - however misguided - that things will change for the better because of a player performing a “miracle” is one of the facets of fandom that keeps fans so slavishly devoted to watching the game; even as you watch your team concede again, hidden in the depths of your psyche there is a nugget of faith, gently washing away your negativity and forcing you to dream of comebacks and victory. Again, this wholehearted belief that can be tested but hardly ever breaks is reminiscent of how people feel about their faith: sure, you might not be able to see the miracle, and it might not always happen, but there is the visceral belief that it will all work out.
Sadly, this childlike ability to suspend belief can often be exploited. The many ills of religious institutions have a long, varied and sad history. The fact of the matter is, when you combine power and unquestionable faith, it leads to exploitation. We have seen this with cults stripping their members of personal wealth, with child-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and with the vengeful zealotry that some followers of religion display in a quest for a purity that never has existed (and never will). Football has also often been exploited, most famously in recent years with the bribery scandals at FIFA (although, corruption at FIFA has been systematic and endemic since near enough its formation). This exploitation also takes place in the cathedral of the football stadium, where fans are being overcharged and outpriced for their weekly worship.
The stadium as a place of worship is parallel that certainly has its merits. Fans adorn replica shirts and travel to the stadium, where they engage in a communal sing-song that raises their spirits and brings them closer to the people around. They become united; larger than the sum of their parts; the twelfth man. The songs of praise are directed towards the demi-God-like players and are an expression of a primal urge to reach out and touch the divine. Live football certainly isn’t the stale, ancient pageantry of Communion, but the jovial atmosphere and ability to lift spirits is akin to a bouncing hymn, or one of the more vociferous gospel Churches.
Football clubs in the UK were traditionally places of community cohesion, with many of them formed by groups of working men as the fledgling trade union movement secured the right to a day off, which then had to be filled with activities. This collective atmosphere often translated in to local clubs being very involved in their communities, something that continues today in almost every professional club throughout the land in the form of training camps for local children, players visiting local hospitals and various fundraising initiatives, as well as in other ways. In the same way that places of worship have been stalwarts of communal activity, the football club was bringing large numbers of people together. Church has Sunday, but football has game-day.
Football can also provide religious experiences that appear to transcend a normal state of being, especially in the atmosphere of a packed stadium. An ex-colleague of mine once told me the story of how he had been at the Manchester City v QPR game in 2012 and had simply blacked out when Sergio Aguero scored the last minute goal to cement the City comeback, secure three points and snatch the league from right under the noses of their cross-town rivals, Manchester United. His story was very similar to the testimony of those who have been to see faith healers and other quasi-religious shows that rely on pageantry and suspended logic. Again, the Marx quote about religion comes to mind, but he could very well have been talking about your team securing a last minute win that pacifies your negative emotions all week. There is a scientific basis for this as well: in his 2004 book The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution, Robin Dunbar discusses the profound sense of comfort in the face of adversity that religion and religious rituals give their followers. He also theorises that the low levels of stress that are caused by more intense religious rituals (especially self-flagellation and the denial of urges) helps to stimulate the production of endorphins, especially at the end of the ritual, when there is usually some kind of “release”. As we all know, there are few leisurely activities as stressful as sitting in the cold on a rainy weekday night, knowing you have a cross-country commute home and work tomorrow; but, it’s all made worth it when there’s a goal, or the final whistle confirming a good result, and you get that rush of sheer, unadulterated joy.
The importance of iconography and certain vernacular to religion is undisputed. Religions, on the whole, have rituals and symbols. These are used to ground and anthropomorphise the otherwise ethereal and spiritual nature of religion and to make it more tangible and relatable. These are also important facets of football fandom and analysis, especially with the current 24-hour sports news cycle lending itself to hyperbole and superlatives. Teams who are the underdog have “faith”; players perform “miracles”; a young forward who bursts on to the scene is “revelatory” or seen as a “messiah” living a “fairytale”. The symbology around football is astoundingly important as well: players are inspired by the badge; you wear your team’s colours; if your team wins a tournament they get to lift the cup (certainly a wholly symbolic act). Believers of religion often adorn themselves or their homes with all sorts of symbols - it showcases their devotion and reminds them of what they deem to be important. Football fans have their own paraphernalia which often have associations attached to them, such as lucky scarves. From a ritualistic sense, there is no end to the parallels: from going to the same pub to watch the game to wearing lucky underwear on match-day, everything is designed to get you in to the right frame of mind and transcend your sense of self to become - and help - a collective. After all, it is human nature to ascribe otherworldly values to worldly items in an attempt to make sense of the sheer randomness of life.
Sadly, human beings also have an unfortunate habit of hurting each other. This truth is bordering on self-evident, with thousands of years of bloodshed and bitterness confirming that simple hypothesis. Paradoxically, human beings have a tremendous propensity to work collaboratively and form communities: again easily evidenced by looking at any form of functional community or family unit. The fact of the matter is that we are animals and are somewhat slaves to our instinct: sometimes this instinct comes out in violence and anger, but sometimes it expresses itself as compassion and fraternity. We are effectively social creatures, and this is why in amongst all of the murdering and pillaging, we have managed to form some sort of civilisation. Our communal instincts can also be manipulated for more reprehensible aims - such as our adverse tendency to murder, rape and pillage in groups, or under the banner of some arbitrary connection. Any sort of ideology, movement or factor that can unify the energies of a group of people has a chance of going down this negative path, regardless of the purity or original aims of the ideology.
Religion is the most one of the most obvious examples of this odd propensity for this divisiveness. Whilst millions around the world use religions and religious dogma as a guide for living a more moral life, there is no doubt that it has been corrupted beyond belief by others. Whether or not the positives outweigh the negatives is a question that would require an untold amount of research and study, and will probably never be fully answered.
Football is another example of this. Whilst the game itself is fairly simple and - in theory - shouldn’t inspire any more animosity than required to be competitive in sport, football rivalries have seen violence, hatred and even murder. This inclination of football fans to clash is a result of heightened emotions and an irrational attachment to a football club. In numerous cases, animosity between two sets of fans is a sort of proxy war for other, underlying sociological issues. The rivalry between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid represents class warfare, with the regally-backed Real representative of the traditionally powerful in their playing style and with their immaculate white kit. Their upstart neighbours - especially in recent years under Diego Simone - are more prone to digging in and fighting for their just desserts, just as successions of the proletariat have had to fight for the most meagre of human rights. In Glasgow we see this relationship between religion and football come full circle, with the Old Firm Derby a flashpoint for sectarian grievances and a troubling reminder of both Ireland and Scotland’s fraught past.
What this all really boils down to is the wondrousness and splendour of football. The fact that 22 people kicking a ball about can inspire hundreds of millions around the world, emotionally affect even the most cold-hearted of people and bring us back to an irrational, primal way of thinking showcases the sheer value of the sport both intrinsically, and practically. Like religion, football will continue to stir the passions and create debate. Like religion, football motivates through emotion and belief as opposed to the earthly mundaneness of reality. Football is an escape; it is where dreams can come true and the prison of the real is lifted - even if it is just for 90 minutes.