Football: The New Religion?

Football’s full of throwaway lines – and this is one of them: the game as religion, the grounds as cathedrals, the supporters as worshippers. Throw in Bill Shankly’s life-and-death quip and you have the perfect metaphor for a country that went from Vitae Lampada to Itchycoo Park in two generations. Like so many of these things, when you look more closely it all falls apart. But in this case, the falling apart leaves something behind that is far more interesting and thought-provoking.

The great post-Suez decline in churchgoing and in new vocations was every bit as anti-Betjeman as the destruction of our town and city centres 1955-75, the Beeching Programme or Mission Praise. It goes to show that football doesn’t always follow other trends in society: three of my “best-ever” England sides came and went in 1955-75, and British club sides, along with Italy’s and Spain’s, dominated the European competitions. Religion’s perceived decline, at its steepest in the sixties, left people wondering if a vacuum would be left in its wake, that other things would rush in to fill. Drugs, shopping, television – football.

But there are at least two stuns to memory operating here. In the first instance, we’ve forgotten what an architectural holocaust the 1880s and 1890s were – the Victorians built their townscapes on top of older things, and, especially in relation to London, there are thousands of mournful photographs of lovely Stuart and Georgian buildings, taken by sad men and women who had no mechanism to protect these ancient, beautiful things. And we’ve forgotten that the real damage to universal religion in England – if it ever existed – came via industrialization and population growth. By the 1850s, by Church of England reckoning, there was space in the nation’s places of worship for less than half of the living population. The problem was worst in the cities, and there, if anywhere, would have been the vacuum left by religion: all one can say for the proposed vacuum fillers is that they took their time turning up.

By the time I developed my own religious life, all of that was long in the past, and football was creeping towards the end of the dark days of hooliganism, bankruptcy and shattered old stadia. As the only Christian in my family, I learned early on the extent of the dislike and resentment the Church, indeed churches, generates, how much of that is actually richly deserved, and how bizarre the attempts to reduce or deflect it have been. As I write I get a picture in my mind of a gowned cleric in the foothills of old age laughing as he toepunts a football in front of the local press…

…and I found out the difference between the lay idea of what “having religion” means and what it actually entails. I’m not going to enter into a full discussion of that here; suffice to say that if religion is a crutch, then you have that crutch with you wherever you go, even on your way down the stairs at Hampstead (Northern Line) when the lifts are out of order.

Instead, let’s compare football-as-religion with religion-as-religion.

Football stadia are constantly compared to cathedrals, and like cathedrals they can be spectacular, area-dominating structures pulling in large numbers of people. The largest English cathedrals, when full, typically hold somewhere in the region of 2000 people. On Saturday 13th January, 2,547 people saw Rochdale lose 1-0 to Bristol Rovers. Football, at almost any level, has a pull that completely eclipses anything any church has ever managed. If Spotland Stadium, home to perhaps the least successful club in League history, is outselling Ely Cathedral (to which entry is free) and has been doing so since before the decline in religion is supposed to have begun, then we can at least say that football isn’t filling any kind of vacuum but exists for its own sake.

That’s not to say that people don’t worry about football taking religion’s place. They do. Here’s a lengthy discussion of the relationship between football and Islam, written from a Muslim point of view.

Certainly, the parts of religion that most intrude on you when you are deeply involved in it don’t seem to have direct equivalents in football. Football tells me nothing as to why I exist. But it can provide a secondary level of meaning. Because I really do care about what happens to the small number of clubs whose results I look out for. (We all have a little stable of clubs, don’t we – one main one, and some minor ones we become affectionate towards for one reason or another.) If things are going badly in my own life, it does help if one or another of my clubs is doing well – it really makes things better for me. But it’s no good in the face of death. (Cricket might be good in the face of death, though – how many dying men’s last words have been an enquiry as to the score? I’ve always wanted to die at a cricket match, quietly in a deckchair with a broadsheet newspaper over my face.)

Nor does football tell me a great deal about how to live my life. It’s a comment I often hear both from foreign friends and from foreign-born clients – that the British just don’t know how to live, a comment usually made in response to a visit to the High Street on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening.

But it does tell some people some things. How to operate within a team – how to play “fair” with others – how to lose gracefully – to keep on trying – to do your best – to channel your energies in productive ways – to control your emotions. These are real life lessons. Yet aren’t they all the result of playing football, when the “religion” metaphor is mostly about watching the game? Hints there of that lay idea about Christianity, that it’s all about going to church. (C.S. Lewis was right about going to church – it’s all about tolerating people who are different from you and never living up to the tenets of their faith and enduring your wrongheaded vicar and putting up with boredom and stupid music and uncomfortable chairs and – these days – getting through the “Peace” without making a dash for safety. Not unlike playing football altogether, and, in some instances, not unremoved from watching it, although this definitely isn’t what people mean when they describe football as a religion!)

What about the relationship between football support as a gesture of allegiance, versus religious sectarianism? Of course, there is a point to be made there. I don’t like hostile club rivalries, and I don’t like religious sectarianism (nor do I like the intellectual dishonesty behind the idea that all religions are different ways up the same mountain). The two collide all the time, most obviously in Glasgow and Edinburgh with Rangers/Celtic and Hearts/Hibs respectively dividing the cities along a Protestant/Catholic divide replete with malice and stupidity.

So, yes, there are parallels and meeting places – but no, this isn’t what people mean by football as religion.

The religious allegiance is, in any case, of a particular kind. Even Anglicans do not pelt God with tomatoes when he comes back from the World Cup in disgrace. We do not seek to have him sacked and replaced with Martin O’Neill. We do not think he would do better if he had a holding midfielder behind him to free him up for those rampaging runs into the box. We do not stage protests at the way he starves the manager of funds in the transfer market.

I can imagine Anglican men, working themselves to death on the Burma Railway, giving God three games to get things back on track. But let’s keep these metaphors at an appropriate level. Between 100,000 and 170,000 people died building the Death Railway, and it’s in those sorts of conditions that you discover which metaphors hold, and which are frivolous.

Nor does football give me any sense of what will happen to me when I die.

More of us have done that peculiar, modern, Cupittian thing of internalising our religion: privatising it in the knowledge that there isn’t anything or anyone actually “out there”. One of the oddest hunches – false hunches – that history can give you is the sense that there was once something and someone out there, someone who coped badly with the aftermath of a drinking bout with David Hume and was subsequently voted out of the League along with Barrow and Workington.

At the same time, history also shows the place that religion actually had in pre-Darwinian, pre-Enlightenment society, and it isn’t what many people might think. Outside of the plague years, the general population seem to have been quite content to leave religion to the religious and to the clergy. In some parts of medieval Europe, religion was left to professionals. Ottonian Germany used monasteries as prayer banks, covering the sins of the warrior castes with supplication and worship, and as depositories for otherwise-dangerous non-inheriting second and third and fourth sons. Nunneries too were prayer banks, but also safe havens for heiresses otherwise in danger of kidnap from said non-inheriting second sons. In some places, southern France being a case in point at about this time (c.1000) inevitable warrior caste rule could lead to effective anarchy and mayhem, which the larger church would occasionally seek to damp down.

The religion of men such as Otto I had something distinctly fetishistic about it. Holy relics were considered possessed of great power, and Otto’s own large collection played a significant part in his personal preparation for the Battle of Lechfield in August 955.

Holy relics.. there’s an echo there, isn’t there, of the huge market in football memorabilia that thrives on Ebay and elsewhere today. Perhaps the most famous piece of memorabilia is Michael Browne’s painting The Art of the Game, which displays Eric Cantona rising from the dead in Christ-like fashion whilst his MUFC colleagues (who look very young compared to the way they look today) lounge about in Roman uniforms.

It’s a religious image, sure – but, and I’ll come back to this, it’s also a military one.

I’ve mentioned here before that football grounds are becoming cathedral-like in another respect, that is, the accumulation of memorials to the glorious dead. That thought was triggered by my visit to Craven Cottage last year, when Fulham had just renamed a stand after Johnny Haynes, and were encouraging fans to sign an enormous “Johnny Haynes shirt” for the club museum.

I might have spoken too soon. A brief survey of the Premiership clubs reveals that there’s been relatively little memorialising going on, and most of what has been done has little to do with football as religion.

Manchester United have the Munich memorial, and a statue of Matt Busby. Liverpool have the Hillsborough Memorial, a statue of Bill Shankly, and gates named for Shankly and also Bob Paisley. Charlton have a statue of Sam Bertram, and a stand named for Jimmy Seed. St James’ Park, Newcastle, where you might have expected this kind of thing to be let rip, have a bar named after Alan Shearer which contains the stone steps from the long-vanished Gallowgate stand. Arsenal have a bust of Herbert Chapman, and will have the Highbury Clock in due course. Beyond that, it’s all stand renamings. It doesn’t amount to much, and I must admit I’m surprised (and quite pleased) by that. It turns out that the over-obsession with historical minutiae and absurdly minor commorations (“it’s forty years since Peterborough scored two goals at Burnden Park” etc.) is all commentator’s colour. It’s all about trying to find something to say about a match. It’s not a reflection of a culture taking a morbid turn.

What’s more, a large proportion of Premiership stadia are either brand new, or so heavily rebuilt in recent years as to be unrecognisable. The problem many clubs now face is how, having moved to a beautiful new high-capacity ground, to recapture the atmosphere of the old one.

It’s something the Church never quite pulled off. When Richard Poore moved the bishopric of Salisbury away from its traditional ground at Old Sarum, it was to a brilliant new cathedral on a new site. Like Ashburton Grove, the new building was architecturally consistent, in the Early English style. I have to say, it lacks something next to e.g. Wells, Winchester, and, most of all, Canterbury. Even the Close fails to awaken anything in me, and I can’t see any future memorial to Ted Heath changing that.

But then – exciting my emotions is all what a football ground is supposed to be about. Not the emotions I want raised by a cathedral or church – nothing reflective or eternal. If football is a religion, it’s one that exists to service emotional needs quite unlike any of the great religions of history.

Think of what we want from sportsmen in Britain. The following, now offline but written in response to the last England Ashes defeat, puts it particularly well:

In blighty, there are millions and millions of sporting fans who work hard, pay taxes, put up with a lot of sh** with the weather, the public transport, crime, rip-off prices and cr** food. All we ask for in return for putting up with this miserable life is a bit of pride from our national football and cricket teams.

The football team is made up of overpaid thugs who have as much pride in wearing the national shirt as Borat does in donning his tight-fitting thong. And what do we get from our cricketers on a mission more important than the moon landing of 1969? Here’s what we get; Marcus Trescothick feeling homesick so has to go home; Harmison homesick and bowling balls in the direction he throws his toys out of the cot; Ashley Giles spinning the ball about every 20 overs; the two wicket-keepers holding the bat as if it is a live grenade; Saj Mahmood looking like the world has come to an end whether he bowls bats or fields; dropped catches; lousy bowling; key advantage points lost; poor captaincy; capitulation by the lower order on a regular basis. The list, I’m afraid, goes on and on and on.

And some bread and butter from the ECB (David Collier) I think actually defending the massive cost of bringing out wives, girlfriends and children (some of them at an age now to suggest there had been clearly too much jiggery-pokery on the last winter tour). Sitting in the cold in Clapton, east London, I see life very differently. If I was honoured to be picked to represent my country at cricket and play in an Ashes series, to stay in five-star hotels, to pit myself against the best in the world, I think I may just be able to motivate myself and put in a performance that my fellow suffering countrymen back home would be proud of.

What we have witnessed is a spineless, gutless capitulation.

It isn’t winning. It’s pride. It’s a display of courage, of pluck. We want our footballers, indeed our sportsmen in general, to display a particular sort of puissance: to embody on our behalf some basic virtues that we value. It’s more important than skill, or beauty. When a non-league team goes to a Premiership club and loses by a couple of goals in each half, but runs itself into the ground until the final whistle, both sets of fans will stand to cheer that team off the pitch.

Much as we enjoyed winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003, there was still a feeling that our failure to come out and attack – to win through pack strength and the boot of Johnny Wilkinson – wasn’t quite what we loved. Jason Robinson’s great try in the Final gave us permission to really celebrate: had we won without a touchdown, I wonder.

All of this – the desire for a group of men to embody values on our behalf, the fetishistic collecting of objects connected to them, the ability to turn on them viciously if they let us down, the wearing of colours and singing of songs, the local rivalries, even the fan violence – all sounds less like religion to me – and a lot more like the behaviour of one of those medieval warrior castes and their coteries. In fact, it sounds exactly like that. And I find that interesting, because precisely none of the people concerned has any idea of the parallels between what they are doing and events in some mead hall in the Dark Ages.

And suddenly, the war comparisons leap forth, don’t they? We want players who are fighters, we bombard the opposition penalty area, but despite that, the other team are killing us. We’re not on the march with Ally’s Army, not any more. Campbell is a Judas, but we really mean he’s a Quisling.

It all brings us back to Vitae Lampada, but also perhaps to another Newbolt verse, taken from “He Fell Amongst Thieves’: our hero awaits execution at dawn at the hands of the tribesmen who have betrayed him:

He did not hear the monotonous roar that fills
The ravine where the Yassin river sullenly flows;
He did not see the starlight on the Laspur hills,
Or the far Afghan snows.

He saw the April noon on his books aglow,
The wistaria trailing in at the window wide;
He heard his father’s voice from the terrace below
Calling him down to ride.

He saw the gray little church across the park,
The mounds that hid the loved and honoured dead;
The Norman arch, the chancel softly dark,
The brasses black and red.

He saw the School Close, sunny and green,
The runner beside him, the stand by the parapet wall,
The distant tape, and the crowd roaring between,
His own name over all.

He saw the dark wainscot and timbered roof,
The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;
The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,
The Dons on the dais serene.

He watched the liner’s stem ploughing the foam,
He felt her trembling speed and the thrash of her screw;
He heard the passengers’ voices talking of home,
He saw the flag she flew.

And now it was dawn. He rose strong on his feet,
And strode to his ruined camp below the wood;
He drank the breath of the morning cool and sweet:
His murderers round him stood.

Light on the Laspur hills was broadening fast,
The blood-red snow-peaks chilled to dazzling white:
He turned, and saw the golden circle at last,
Cut by the Eastern height.

“O glorious Life, Who dwellest in earth and sun,
I have lived, I praise and adore Thee.”
A sword swept.
Over the pass the voices one by one
Faded, and the hill slept.

We don’t feel that way about real war anymore, but the attitude has nonetheless found itself a new home to go to, and lives on in a modern form. It was the Great War that did for all of that, of course. The famous 1914 truce, discussed in yesterday’s England v Germany video, took place after four months of unprecedented horror and bloodshed, during which officers and men of both sides had attacked whilst kicking footballs out ahead of them. There was still little sense of what was to come, and the kind of thing that took place only a decade and a half before at Mafeking would soon be gone for good.

In April 1900, more Boer troops arrived to join the besieging forces surrounding the British at Mafeking. Among them was a young Field Cornet, by the name of Sarel Eloff, Kruger’s grandson. Eloff was keen to launch an all-out attack on the town, but General Snyman held him back. What he did then seems almost inexplicable to us.

He sent Baden-Powell, the British commander, a message suggesting that Eloff bring a Boer cricket team into Mafeking to play the British.

I suppose it would have helped pass the time, but even so!

Baden-Powell’s reply was equal to the occasion.

Just now we are having our innings and have so far scored 200 days, not out, against the bowling of Cronje, Snijman, Botha… and we are having a very enjoyable game.

It’s magnificent, but I think we’re content to internalise the football-war links now: we want football to present us with a display of the virtues that we think might be worthy in the kind of old-fashioned war we know we can no longer have. War never really was like that, of course.

In fact, I think that’s the key to the real value of football now. For the first time in history, in the forms of football and (I think) manned spaceflight, mankind has things more exciting than war to get on with. Football in particular seems able to suck into itself the kind of desires and emotions that otherwise spill over into actual, not feigned, conflict. And it does so leaving us with honour, reminding us that

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

1 Reply to “Football: The New Religion?”

  1. Finding sport as anything but sport is quite a challenge. After all, sport is an escape from the rest of life rather than explaination of it.

    Great post.

Comments are closed.