Football--the New Religion?

By Eddy Canfor-Dumas

Football isn't a matter of life and death--it's much more important than that." (Bill Shankly, former manager of Liverpool Football Club)

Around the world billions follow it on television, and hundreds of thousands regularly make the pilgrimage to watch it in person.

Some clergymen in the U.K. have begun to fret that football is taking over as the nation's principal religion. They point out troubling similarities. Football, like religion, involves an elaborate set of rules and rituals. Like religion, it brings the community together in a regular act of worship, feeding a need for something greater than people can find in their daily lives. And like some religions it can be supported for long periods by little more than blind faith.

But why is football so popular around the globe--to the despair of all those who felt the World Cup would never end? And does it really threaten to become the new religion?

A clue can be found in the word itself, which is commonly thought to derive from the Latin "religare," meaning "to bind." Religion is what binds people both to some transcendent truth and, crucially, to each other. The historian Arnold Toynbee went so far as to argue that civilizations rise and fall according to the ability of their dominant religions to motivate people to overcome--together--the challenges that confront them.

Football certainly has this power "to bind." Teams are always a focal point for a community loyalty--whether they're stuffed with foreign stars or staffed by part-timers. Witness how "cup fever" grabs a small town when its team draws a top side in a knock-out competition, or how "the nation" rallies behind its team in international championships. There are few social phenomena that share this power, which these days is dramatically magnified by television.

Of course, football can also divide people. The most famous example is the so-called Football War between El Salvador and Honduras--a five-day war in July 1969 that is supposed to have started after a dispute over a World Cup qualifying match between the two countries. (In reality, it arose because of Honduran objections to El Salvadoran migrants.) More locally, hooliganism between rival fans is still with us, and racism and sectarianism are rife in some clubs.

But the central point holds. Football's power to bind has not gone unnoticed by those whose business it is to build peace, and there are many "Football for Peace" initiatives around the world. During a recent visit to FIFA headquarters, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan remarked: "I can't think of anything that can bring people together like football. I've seen countries torn apart by war put their differences to one side to watch a match. For 90 minutes at a time, people become one nation." In fact the sport was actually nominated for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize by a Swedish politician.

Football "binds" not just because it's an entertaining and accessible game, but because of something in people themselves--a deep desire to act together in a common cause; to share in large, emotional events; to experience together the dramatic ups and downs of life that can be represented by a sporting contest. It is the same desire, I believe, that draws people to concerts and plays and--yes--to certain religions.

As a football fan and a practicing Buddhist, I see many Buddhist principles at work in the game. "Many in body, one in mind"--a team of different individuals, with varied skills and roles (many bodies), all working in unity toward a single end (one mind). The power of "ichinen"--of focusing one's whole intent and determination on achieving a desired result. And the vital need for the oneness of mentor and disciple--manager and team--in forging this unity and determination. Perhaps Bill Shankly's famous remark isn't so far from the truth after all.

Eddy Canfor-Dumas is the author of several books including The Buddha, Geoff and Me and an award-winning writer for television whose work includes Not the Nine O'Clock News, The Bill, and Supervolcano.