World Cup 2022: Why is it said that football is a religion in the eyes of its fans?

What is the connection between the opening of the World Cup, conferences on the coexistence of religions and beauty pageants? On all these occasions, we listen to the same speech about peace in the world, love, dialogue between peoples and rejection of differences.

Let’s put the beauty contests aside here and think about the similarity between football events and major religious events, which is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require much consideration.

During the World Cup, every four years, “history” seems to pause for a moment, so that millions can enjoy the game they love.

In the midst of a burst of sports enthusiasm, the impossible becomes possible, as if Mohammed bin Salman and Tamim bin Hamad meet on the same platform, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi shake hands in front of the cameras.

Does this scene not remind one of the meetings described as historic, between the leaders of religions, when they meet to erase the bloody history of wars and divisions? Meetings full of calls for peace and coexistence, despite the turn of the modern world towards hate speech.

The framework is different, since the main goal of football is entertainment, while religious leaders are preoccupied with topics that go beyond the afterlife and the search for the salvation of human souls, and their interest these days seems to be focused on saving the planet from climate change.

Although football, with its clubs and champions, can reach the stage of “consecration” by the masses, those who have the opportunity to organize football events do not necessarily want to “achieve world peace”.

On the contrary, their priorities are focused on building stadiums, receiving audiences, distributing broadcasting rights, making advertisements and all possible financial, political and moral gains.

Egyptian fans during the Mitt Roumi Street Football Championship in Dakahlia province, a tournament that has been organized since 1975.

In both cases, this linguistic consistency, at the level of leaders and commanders, seems to originate from one source, namely the people’s close association with their religious and sporting rituals, their attachment to their symbols and their adoption as evidence of their truth and identity.

In this context, sociologists note the following similarities:

  • large mass gatheringsFootball fans flying in the stands or in the streets are very similar to religious festivals or pilgrimage seasons.
  • Icons and logosFollowers of religions highlight special symbols, such as the crescent moon or the cross, during their rituals and wear similar clothing. The same applies to football fans who celebrate the colors of their teams and the symbols of their clubs and highlight them as a way to differentiate themselves from other groups.
  • Heroes, saints and saintsSociologists compare the veneration of religious figures to the way the masses treat football stars, so that they have a respect that sometimes parallels worship.
  • institutions and structuresWith the increasing strength of football associations and clubs, and the dominance of their structure during the game, it can be said that their structure in some way resembles religious institutions such as dioceses, churches and fatwa houses, as it is not limited to football fans who like to play with with a ball on the streets and alleys.

This comparison of religious rituals and football rituals has always been a subject of debate since the rise of football crowds accompanied the organization of major sporting events that millions look forward to, such as the World Cup and club championships.

Of course, the matter is fundamentally different. Religious practices are aimed at the salvation of man, at his relationship with the Creator, life and death, and arouse the enthusiasm of believers on a high spiritual level.

However, in terms of form, the actions of sports fans often seem close to prayer and the Eid celebration, on the one hand, and the affirmation of collective identity, on the other.

How often does the camera catch fans crying, praying or raising their hands to the sky in prayer? How often do we see football heroes kneeling in the middle of the pitch in celebration or giving thanks after scoring a goal? And how many times do the stars rise on the shoulders of their neighbors in prayer and joy, as if they were saints?

Argentina fans at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar during their national team's match against Saudi Arabia during the 2022 World Cup.
Argentina fans at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar during their national team’s match against Saudi Arabia during the 2022 World Cup.

This comparison was reinforced by the rise of football stars and legends, such as Diego Maradona (1960-2020), who was nicknamed “The Hand of God”, and from his language came the famous saying that “Football is not a game, nor a sport, but rather a religion, ” and whose followers founded a church in his name.

Also, during the past decade and with the emergence of new forms of public intolerance towards clubs, in the light of mass media coverage of the matches of the Spanish El Clasico and the English Premier League, it has become easy to observe new forms of sanctity and fanaticism for teams.

In the case of followers of religions, fanaticism and extremism are unacceptable phenomena that cause concern at the political level and can lead to wars and bloodshed. But in the case of football fans, fanaticism about the identity of a team or sports club is part of the entertainment game and an essential element in showing loyalty.

Fanaticism in football and uncontrolled crowd outbursts often lead to bloody scenes, stampedes and violent incidents.

Football fans can turn into a factor of concern for the forces of order, security and suppression of disorder, especially when these fans turn into driving political forces and participants in political movements. Revolutions or political protests can happen with the beat of drums and the cheers of football fans.

But all that violence in the expression of love remains within the framework of “toleration”, because it is the innocent fanaticism, so to speak, of football stars and clubs, and a move towards a common goal that removes borders and differences between races. , religion and nationality.

As with the followers of religions in their rituals and feasts, we also notice in the habits of football fans the desire to advertise and praise the identity related to the club or national team, through slogans, flags, chants and colors.

This is not only public advertising, but also the daily practice of people interested in this sport, because slogans, posters and pictures enter their private spaces.

On a private level, we can notice a funny similarity between religion and football, just as most of us inherit religion from the family, so loyalty to a certain team is inherited in the family. And whoever wants to “rebell” in his family or society should try to “embrace” the cheering of the other team.

An English fan (2014) and a Brazilian fan (2021) pray for their favorite teams
An English fan (2014) and a Brazilian fan (2021) pray for their favorite teams

The study of football as a “semi-religious” phenomenon preoccupied sociologists, drawing on the writings of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who studied indigenous religions in Australia, to develop a theory of religions as social forces emerging in an environment of solidarity and solidarity. among human beings.

According to Durkheim’s famous definition, “religion is a unique system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, things that are isolated and surrounded by various kinds of prohibitions. And these beliefs and practices unite all believers in one moral group.”

According to Durkheim, therefore, there are three basic elements that must be present in order for collective forces to be classified under the category of religion:

  • Sacred objects such as symbols and emblems.
  • A set of beliefs and rituals.
  • The existence of a group with moral authority.
The Algerian national team arrived at the stadium in Cairo after the victory over Senegal in 2019.
The Algerian national team arrived at the stadium in Cairo after the victory over Senegal in 2019.

If we abandon Durkheim’s definition of the practice of soccer fans and supporters, we observe the availability of elements that make the game more like a religion in terms of its dynamism, even if it is not occupied with deep spiritual questions and the search for the secrets of the universe and the Creator.

The interaction of the masses with the saints of their clubs can reach an extreme state of admiration and respect, as we observe, for example, in the case of the rush to acquire the jerseys of football stars and sell them at auctions for fantastic sums, in addition to the urgent desire to imitate them by wearing clothes similar to their clothes and engraving their names or numbers in the form of tattoos on the skin. .

Football teams sometimes take on a salutary character, because people place all their hopes and aspirations in them and expect them to erase their disappointments and defeats, which gives them a moral strength that transcends political differences.

Even those who oppose the political authorities in their countries do not shy away from pointing out the flags of their national teams, as if they are the purest proof of their attachment to the homeland, which cannot be the subject of controversy and controversy.

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