The Football Delusion
Hearing a Liverpool supporter describe the moment his team won the Champion’s League in Istanbul as, “The best orgasm ever-total body joy, like I was turning into the sun,” it’s hard not to accept the spiritual role football plays in people’s lives. Many supporters will proudly tell you that football is their “religion,” that their ground is a, “cathedral,” that a prominent player or manager is a, “God,” or, “Saint.” But is this all consuming faith, which binds people of one sect against those of other sects, insists upon unwavering faith and produces feelings of transcendental exultation in its followers, just another obstacle on the road to a more rational world?
Definitions of religion vary wildly, making it hard to prove the assertion that “Football is a religion.” Until relatively recent times, definitions of football were almost as varied. Many games using the name were played around the world, but it was “The English game,” or, “Soccer,” that established itself internationally as, “The Game of the people.” (Despite being developed by the British upper class.) During soccer’s nascent period, England was a dominant world power with an Empire spanning about a quarter of the world. Association football (The term that Soccer was derived from) was just one of the many cultural exports made during this time. In a similar way, monotheist religions assumed dominance over earlier belief systems by being the chosen religion of ruling world powers, able to spread their doctrine to any nation they conquered. The definition of “Football,” after the establishment of soccer throughout the world, became much narrower; as did the definition of “Religion,” with the spread of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
For the purposes of this article, any mention of football will refer to soccer, or association football, unless otherwise stated. Religion will refer to a whole host of creeds and denominations that share the ability to bind people in a common form of worship that they believe allows them to transcend this world in some way, and instils in them a set of beliefs and values that they take on faith as worthy of following. This takes in everything from primitive animal worship to the more modern, monotheistic religions.
In the same way that religion goes back much further than the ascent of monotheism, football has a history that long pre-dates the formation of the Football Association(FA) in 1863. Dr Rogan Taylor, head of The Institute of Football Studies at Liverpool University, PhD in religion, and ardent Liverpool supporter, believes that religious ceremony and the rituals of football fanaticism have many similarities. In the late sixties, when Liverpool Football Club reigned supreme, with the almost deified Bill Shankly regularly leading the team to glory, a young Dr Taylor was travelling Afghanistan. Talking to a group of locals, he was surprised to learn that none of them had heard of Shankly and knew little about football. But, they explained, they had their own game and if he wanted he was welcome to go along and watch.
“There were these two teams of really expert horsemen,” Dr Taylor says. He is sat in his study, which, with its framed pictures of Liverpool players and other mounted pieces of football memorabilia is as much a shrine to the game as any teenage boy’s bedroom. “At either end of this field were two rocks, and the object of the game was to hit a severed goat’s head between the rocks. The two teams would, on horseback, hit the goat’s head with great big sticks, sending it back and forth up the pitch. By the end of the game, everybody was completely covered in blood. They almost looked like the Liverpool team, with all the red everywhere.”
Dr Taylor explains that he saw a correlation between this ancient game and all games of this nature. It seemed to him to almost take the form of a fertility rite, smearing the field with the blood of the goat in an attempt to ensure a healthy crop. The excitement he witnessed from both the players and the spectators mirrored the rapture he had seen in the football grounds of England. “This has always been with us,” he remembers thinking, “and of course, football is a winter game.”
The origins of football are, as I have said, cloudy; one early version of the game took the form of a mass battle between two villages, with hundreds competing for their village’s possession of the ball. That version of the game, sometimes known as “Mob football” dates back to the middle ages, but is still played in The Orkney Islands, each year, on New Years Day. In “Mob Football,” the ball is handled as well as kicked. It wasn’t until rules were set down in Cambridge University in 1848 that the use of a player’s feet was favoured and not until the formation of the FA in 1863 that handling the ball became the major no-no it is today. Dr Taylor believes the decision not to handle the ball was the very thing that made the game so important.
“It was a unique ball game,” says Dr Taylor with a wild eyed passion that’s hard not to be enthused by, “every other one, you do the same thing, pick it up. With soccer you have to use the lump on the end of your leg. That’s the big difference and it becomes the biggest game in the world. Why not hockey? The rules were written at the same time, so what gives football the advantage? It’s the only game that is impossible to play-instinctively if something comes flying at you, you catch it- if you want to launch something, you throw it. You wouldn’t pick your nose with your toes, but the super posh, the students at Cambridge who developed the game, wanted to make it hard to play.
“The hands are incredible tools, tools that mark us out from the beasts. But the super posh decided to sublimate, in the true Freudian sense, the skills of the hand into the body. So watching football is different. You watch basketball and they’re scoring every other second, you’re watching perfection that is occasionally interrupted. With football it’s all imperfect. When someone finally scores people act as if God has descended from heaven, ‘Fuck me, it worked.’ But it’s rare, so the core experience of being a football fan is suffering.”
Paul Coakley, 32 year old student at The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, and life long Liverpool supporter, agrees with this. When asked whether he would prefer not to be a follower of football, Paul says that it certainly would have saved him a lot of heartache over the years. But he also believes that, like a religion, it has taught him some valuable life lessons. “When I was a kid, in the 80s, Liverpool never got beat. Then Arsenal beat them in 1989, and they won the league instead of us. Up till then, if I went to the match, I didn’t go to watch footy, I went to watch Liverpool win. Then we didn’t win anything for years and I had to go to senior school and everything was horrible. It was like the end of me childhood. It sort of prepared me for the misery of getting older.”
“I don’t like the person it turns me into,” says Gary Murphy. Like Paul, Gary has been a Liverpool supporter all his life. Over the years he has become aware of the irrationality of his obsession but knows deep down that he is hooked. “It’s like a drug, it just flips a switch in me. Everyone’s a cunt who isn’t playing for you or supporting the same team. I would love to be a neutral and just appreciate the game, but I just can’t do it.”
This element , almost of self-punishment, is not peculiar to Liverpool fans.
“Fan,” obviously comes from the word “Fanatic,” which, as Doctor Taylor points out, is not a desirable thing to be. “A fanatic is overwhelmed by a single ideological obsession-they don’t eat it, it eats them.”
He goes on to point out that the Italian term for Football supporter is, “Tifosi,” or people with Typhus. “Typhus is a deadly disease- the brain gets addled, people hallucinate. It may be this aspect that they are referring to when they use the name.” There seems to be a feeling among football supporters that they have been chosen to support their given team, and that they must patiently endure the suffering that this entails, waiting for the brief moment when they are granted salvation, in the form of a goal or win. At the moment of this success the supporter is briefly delivered from this suffering, transcending his every day life. One fan tells me that seeing his team win was, “Better than the birth of any of me kids, no doubt about it.”
As soon as this moment is over, however, the suffering begins again. It is never ending, like a Buddhist cycle of death and resurrection, except without any hope of nirvana. When a team is playing badly, fans often show unwavering support and what might, to outsiders, seem like an irrational faith in their team’s future success.
So it would seem that football support contains, at the least, enough of the hallmarks of a religion to justify the constant comparisons made by both fans and players who refer to their pitch as “Hallowed ground,” or engage in superstitious activities such as the wearing of certain “Lucky,” pieces of clothing or kissing a bald man’s head before a game. But what is it about these fanatics, often working class and usually male, that makes them crave the succour this superstition brings? Shouldn’t we be able to live without these quasi-spiritual experiences? How, in a scientific world, can it be possible for people to identify so strongly with a team whose fortunes their collective willing and faith has little or no actual effect on? Perhaps the answer lies in the way in which religion has always been manipulated in the name of social control and what is really behind people’s attachment to the idea of faith.
According to a Guardian poll in 2006, 82% of people saw religion as a cause of “Tension and division.” The same poll found that only 63% thought of themselves as religious. Presumably, this was referring to religion in the modern, organised sense. As we have already established, religion as a phenomenon is older than any of the organised faith-systems that people tend to automatically think of. Evidence of worship and sacrificial ceremony have been found to exist as far back as the Palaeolithic era, with monotheistic, Abrahamic religions only becoming dominant in the last couple of millennia. It would appear that more and more often, people in Britain are unwilling to identify themselves with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any of the other big guns. But the upsurge in yoga centres and new age practices, along with the blind faith of football support, would suggest that people are just as unwilling to completely give up on the promise of a non-scientific, preferably spiritual, appendage to their otherwise drab and often crushing lives. The argument for man’s need for ceremony, reliance on faith and love of communal ecstasy is often given as it being a part of, “Human nature,” a fixed thing that cannot be tampered with.
Surely this can’t be the same “Human Nature,” that less than two hundred years ago led some of us to feel superior enough to enslave our fellow man, that a hundred years ago denied female suffrage, that only legally accepted homosexuality in the late sixties, and that still, arguably, encourages us to see the confluence of money and power as a perfectly “Natural,” thing. Not everyone is so sure about the idea of a fixed human nature, and those that are often use it as an excuse for their own actions. The Tory elite want us to believe in birthright, the male serial adulterer will often cite his “nature,” as an excuse for his philandering, (“It’s the caveman in me.”) and sometimes people will even use national stereotypes as the reason for their own unseemly behaviour.
It is generally said that one of the things that sets us apart from the beasts is our power to reason, and to know when and when not to act on certain primal urges depending on the rationality of the urge or its power to inflict harm on the greater society. The “Social contract,” we enter into means we can interact with each other on a daily basis without taking what we want as soon as we see it, killing each other every time we disagree strongly about something or exerting our will over another person without their consent. It could be argued that pledging unquestioning allegiance to a creed or even a football team, hinders our ability to extend this reasoning to a level free of irrational thought.
Richard Dawkins calls faith, “The process of non-thinking,” he believes it, “discourages independent thought,” and that “the assault on the senses,” provided by religious ceremony, “...appeals to us...not to doubt.” This is why religion has often been a useful tool for controlling society. What we see in Palaeolithic animal sacrifice is benign, and essentially pointless. But man at that point would have had no context in which to see the pointlessness of his actions. It wasn’t that he was stupid, just that, for him, the world of ideas was a smaller place. Burying a bear in a ritual fashion would, to Palaeolithic man, have seemed like an action that could magically result in another action.
But as man began to accumulate and assume power over other men, what better way to protect that status than to keep such superstitious belief alive with the added detail that some people are closer than others to whatever force is controlling nature? Perhaps these rulers believed in their innate connection to a higher power, making it easier for them to justify acts of subjugation, even to themselves. The subjugated acquiesced because religion provided them with explanations, and a sense of there being a point to a world which they themselves had very little control over.
The Crusades of the middle ages were an attempt to transport Christian “values,” throughout the world. But those values and a strict obedience to God’s laws (Helping ensure a placid nature in those it dominates), are ideas that really only benefit those in power, providing those at the bottom end of society only a further prison; that of faith that it will all mean something in the end. People are convinced by those that benefit from it, that they are living in what Voltaire called the “Best of all possible worlds.”
It is easy to see parallels between this religious hegemony and the way in which the “Super-posh,” as Dr Taylor calls them, transported their favoured sport to the impoverished working class by “Charitably,” funding small church football teams. As the grandson of Quentin Hogg, a rich philanthropist and early benefactor of the game, explains, “My grandfather thought the human being should be balanced between the spiritual and the physical.” Such philanthropy was a post-Dickensian craze, absolving rich people from the guilt of being so wealthy while others starved. (By this point “Divine right,” had began to be questioned.) Providing poor people with sporting activity also had the benefit of training healthy cannon fodder to protect the empire. Cannon fodder that had already learned, on the pitch, how to follow orders and, “..obey the rules of conduct even when... in conflict,” as one old Etonian is quoted as saying.
From the beginning, the link between football and God was made clear. Everton FC began life as the St Domingo’s church team, St Marks became Manchester city and Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton all had their origins in faith based organisations. Most fans have long-since given up on organised religion, with the obvious exception of Celtic and Rangers whose supporters do more than anyone to keep alive religious sectarianism; as seen in the recent spate of parcel bombs aimed at individuals linked to Celtic . Instead, the primal need for transcendental spirituality, is channelled into worship of the teams themselves.
As religion loses its grasp on the masses, the ruling class have had to seek their dominance in other ways. Karl Marx called religion, “...the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” This “Sigh of the oppressed,” can be heard on a Saturday afternoon in pubs around Britain, where people who feel disenfranchised and unable to take a real part in the political process, cry and cheer for teams owned by greed-fuelled millionaires, such as Roman Abramovich or Mohamed Al-Fayed. Like those who once benefited from the religious stupefaction of the masses, these millionaires maintain the status quo by elevating players to the level of Gods, and in the process naturalising the idea of a superior elite that must be worshipped.
Of course, it would be a misunderstanding of Marx’s quote not to realise that, given the “Souless conditions,” many people live in, that football is beneficial in the short term. Chelsea supporter and sports journalist, Jamie Bowman explains, “People have shitty lives and I can totally understand the need for that release.” But wouldn’t it be better if that release had a more pragmatic nature, allowing people to enjoy the game simply as a game and not as a substitute for control of their own lives?
Now, in 2011, we live in a society that is slowly shedding its need for the “Bind,” that religion provides, a bind that invariably sets you and those you have bound with against others.
Paul Coakley, the Liverpool supporter who described the experience of seeing his team win in Istanbul as, “...like I was turning into the sun,” has this to say about football support: “Liverpool have flag days, where everyone goes to the match and waves the flag-and it looks like a Stalinist celebration. I dislike seeing people in countries pledging allegiance to the flag, it seems totalitarian. But when I see Liverpool fans do it I just think it looks amazing. I forget all about how Stalinist it looks and I just feel pride.”
Marx also knew that to call on people to give up their faith was the same as asking them to give up a condition that requires illusions. Supporters gathering behind flags, with an unquestioning zeal, seem happy with their illusions, for now at least.