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Soccer as a universal secular religion

06/07/2014

The World Soccer Cup currently being held in Brazil, and other great soccer events as well, take on characteristics proper of religions. To millions of people, soccer, the sport that possibly mobilizes the most people in the world, has occupied the place religion commonly held. Some scholars of religion, like Emile Durkheim and Lucien Goldmann, to mention only two of the most important, say that religion is not a system of ideas; but above all, «a system of forces that mobilizes people to lift them up to the highest exaltation.» (Durckheim). Faith is always associated with religion. The same classical writer affirms in his famous book, The Elemental Forms of Religious Life: «faith is above all warmth, life, enthusiasm, exaltation of mental life, the transport of the individual beyond himself» (p.607). And Lucien Goldamn, sociologist of religion and a Pascalian Marxist, concludes: «to believe is to assert that life and history make sense; absurdity exists, but it does not prevail».

Thus for many people, soccer embodies religious characteristics: faith, enthusiasm, warmth, exaltation, a field of forces and an enduring trust that one’s own team will win.

The opening spectacle of the games reminds us of a large religious celebration, full of reverence, respect, silence, followed by noisy applause and enthusiastic shouts; sophisticated rituals with music and scenic displays of the different cultures present in the country; presentation of the symbols of soccer (the standards and flags), especially the cup, that functions as a true sacred chalice, a holy Grail sought by all. And there is, said with respect, the ball, that functions as a sort of host token shared by all.

In soccer as in religion, let’s take Catholicism for reference, there are eleven apostles (Judas does not count) who are the eleven players, sent to represent a country; the saints of reference such as Pele, Garrincha, Beckenbauer and others; there is also a Pope, who is the President of FIFA, endowed with almost infallible powers. He comes surrounded by cardinals that constitute the technical commission responsible for the event. There follow the archbishops and bishops who are the national coordinators of the Cup. Then there is the priestly cast, the coaches, carriers of the special sacramental power of naming, confirming and removing players. Then come the deacons who form the body of judges, master-theologians of the orthodoxy, that is, of the rules of the game, who do the concrete job of conducting the game. At the end, come the acolytes, the line judges, who help the deacons.

The conduct of a game elicits phenomena that also occur in religion: brief prayers (refrains) are shouted, people cry from emotion, pray, divine promises are made (Felipe Scolari, the Brazilian coach, fulfilled his promise of walking, some twenty kilometers, up to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Caravaggio, in Farroupilha, if Brazil won the World Cup that year, as it happened), amulets and other symbols of the diverse Brazilian religiosity are used. Powerful saints, orixas and energies of the axe are evoked and invoked.

There even exists a Holy Inquisition, the technical body, whose mission it is to guard the orthodoxy, resolve conflicts of interpretation and eventually to process and punish players and even whole teams.

As in religions and Churches there exist orders and religious congregations, there also are «organized fans». They have their rites, their canticles and their ethics.

There are whole families that go to live near the Club house of their team, that functions as a true church, where the faithful gather and share their dreams. They tattoo their bodies with the symbols of their teams, and as soon as a child is born, it is adorned with the symbols of the team, that is, the child receives there a baptism that never should be betrayed.

I consider it reasonable to understand faith as formulated by the great Christian philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, as a wager: if you say that God exists you have everything to gain; if after all God does not exist, you have lost nothing. So, it is better to bet that God exists. The fan lives on bets (whose main expression is the sports lottery or quiniela), that luck will favor his team or that something will happen in the last minute of the game, that changes everything, and that finally his team will win, no matter how strong the adversary. Just as in religion, there are persons of reference, the same happens with the star players.

There is in religion the sickness of fanaticism, of intolerance and of violence against other religious expressions; the same happens in soccer: groups of one team attack the opposing team. Buses are stoned and true crimes can occur, as everyone knows, from organized fans and from fanatics who can wound and even kill followers of the other team.

To many, soccer has become a world view, a way of understanding the world and of making sense of life. There are those who suffer when their team loses and become euphoric when it wins.

I personally appreciate soccer from the distance for a simple reason: as one with four prostheses, in the knees and the femurs, I could never ever accomplish those runs and do those jumps and stretches. The soccer players do what I could never do, without falling and breaking something. There are soccer players who are magnificent artists of creativity and ability. Not without reason, the main philosopher of the XX century, Martin Heidegger, would not miss a single important game, because he saw in soccer the concretization of his philosophy: the contest between Being and entity, confronting, denying, composing each other, and engaging in the unpredictable game of life, that we all play.

Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro, alfaro_melina@yahoo.com.ar,
done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.

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