I’m going to psych you here. Watch out, because you’re going to get played like a fool. OK, here goes: think of a place that millions of people go to on Sunday, without fail, to sing songs of praise, and worship their deities. Eh? Eh? You said church, right? I told you I was going to trick you. I meant the football stadium! Can’t believe you fell for it.
Many commentators have drawn the perfectly obvious parallel between church and football support, and for good reason: even as C of E is deserted in droves by modern Britain’s broken society, lapsed Cathols and atheists and agnostics and Hindus and Muslims all over the shop continue to find other temples to donate their money and pledge their faith, and not just because they’d rather have a chicken pie than a wafer. That football is Britain’s religion is hardly a revelatory find.
I’m just interested, as an atheist and generally non-violent sports lover, in ways that a rational person can be a football supporter – and I suppose I mean a Premiership supporter, especially. If that makes you angry, consider how cross religious people get when their ardour is called into question. What do you love about your team (whose management, squad and perhaps ground may have changed so much in your lifetime that they are virtually unrecognisable)? Do you hail from the city that you support? Were you indoctrinated, i.e. did your father tell you what team to support and did you blindly follow him? Do you like the Sunday rituals – the songs, the scores, the food, the outfits? When your team play badly, would you still like them to have won the match? These are not logical, easily explicable behaviours – and they pertain to a religious way of thinking.
An argument to the contrary that I sometimes hear goes along the lines of football being like music, or art: something not easily explainable, but which transports you out of yourself, which appeals to the senses somehow, which corresponds to certain sensibilities. But this is to ignore the competitive nature of sport: don’t forget that your team is there to beat another team, and once you’ve defeated them, you’ll probably sing gloating songs of one-upmanship about Sheffield women being shit in bed. This isn’t what your average concert-goer gets from Tchaikovsky. No-one loses in The Beatles (apart from Ringo, I suppose).
Like all religious movements, football’s appeal is predicated on hatred and violence: it finds its greatest expression in Britain, where feudal divisions and a generally roustabout attitude inherited from the Vikings are well catered for in a classic derby. These are also things that religion picked up on when the Catholics brought it here: look at all those turreted church spires across the land, whence villages fired arrows at other villages, and you see how religion often centred on inter-communal fights. And so to hooliganism. Incidentally, I think everyone has the potential to be a hooligan: something in one’s blood that is not rational or noble is stirred up, bullfightlike, by football. Ah, how well I remember taking over the streets of Paris with the baying masses after France’s victory over Spain in 2006! Along with about twenty other people, I shook a whole car with passengers inside it, banging on the roof, screaming my head off, like a lunatic pagan. If some Dago had arrived at that point to tell me that Zidane wasn’t worth a peseta, I think I might have done him/her some serious harm.
So: football appeals to a base instinct for fighting, and an even lower instinct for the solace of spiritual uplift. The two are well connected: the word ‘fanatic’ covers a sizable enough portion of religious folk that I need not stretch the parallel too much. So how can the football fan maintain a sense of rationality amid all this? This is actually pretty much a rhetorical question: I’d really like to know, and I’m not sure I have the answer. Think, though, of such wonderful sporting moments as Fratton Park giving Thierry Henry a standing ovation for his part in Arsenal’s 5-1 ass-whoop of Portsmouth in March 2004: the casting aside of partisanship, there, shows a real love of the game that goes beyond scraping a win against your enemies; an appreciation of football as spectacle – perhaps getting close to an artistic appreciation of it.
I'm privileged in not having grown up in England, and therefore not having an especially strong allegiance to one team - as a casual football fan, I get to ignore the scores at the weekend, and only watch the occasional match. Using the third person to talk about a team ("we beat Man Utd last week") is anathema to me, and not just because while Rooney et al were getting beaten, I was sitting on my arse eating toasties: it's because I'm still able to have no real emotional, or spiritual, connection to football. For this I give thanks to God every day.