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Is football becoming the religion of the masses?
Jim Johnson

Roman Catholicism is the league champion of the world's religions with 18.7% of the global population supporting this giant club. It narrowly beats Islam to the top spot, which with its 764 million followers gets 18.3% and has to settle for the runners-up medal. But these figures are based on people saying that they belong to a certain faith regardless of whether they actually practice it. Christians are especially bad for this. Many people claim to be Christian because their grandparents used to go to church. Perhaps they have also been christened. But most are far more likely to spend Sunday mornings watching TV whilst nursing a hangover rather than attending church. Agnostic is a term much more suitable for describing many 'Christians'. Officially this point of view already represents 16.3% of the population, making it the number three 'religion' in the world faith league. But if we moderate this figure with the number of non-practising Christians then it would almost certainly claim league domination. So where are the people going? Are we turning into faithless heathens or are we finding alternative gods? Football is becoming more and more popular throughout the world. Is it possible that a sport could be replacing Christianity as the religion of the masses?

Take a country where you'd expect to find a lot of devout Catholics, Spain for example. Surely here religion is far more popular than football? Spain's very existence is the result of a series of medieval anti-Muslim crusades. They also gave the world the Jesuits, to fight Protestant Counter-Reformation in the 16th Century. Under Franco, the church and the state were so closely tied that the Vatican allowed the government to appoint Spanish bishops, while the government paid priests' salaries and granted the church many other privileges. But today the church is undeniably losing its hold. Only 40% of Spaniards go to church once a month and most of them are old, so this decline can only be expected to continue. 300,000 people go to watch Primera Division football every week, that's 1.2 million a month, which alone is way short of Spanish church attendance figures. To get the whole picture however, we need to include those who attend matches in the other Spanish Divisions and the millions who watch on TV. Then we can see that Spain, although perceived as being very religious, also regards football with a similar and increasing level of importance.

But what of our own nation? The Church of England's Sunday attendance figures for '96 and '97 have recently fallen below the psychologically significant 1 million threshold. Only 816,500 people now attend church weekly (995,700 if you count the kids they drag along). The over-64's make up the largest proportion of this population, so as in Spain, church attendance is set to dwindle in the future. Let's compare this with attendance at England's football grounds: over 700,000 people attended matches in the Premiership and the Nationwide league this weekend. That's nearly as many as attend church, which is especially significant when you consider that all these people actually had to pay to watch and couldn't just turn up for free. Also, many teams are so popular that their grounds could regularly sell out two or three times over if they had enough seats. Due to limited capacities and high admission charges most fans cannot go to support their teams as often as they would like so have to settle for watching them on TV. Match of the Day, despite its unpopular late-evening slot, draws over 4 million viewers each week. Live matches, of course, attract many more millions. For example Man United v Bayern Munich in the 1999 European Champions League got 15.62 million British viewers. The most watched sporting event ever was the 1966 World Cup Final, which was watched by 27 million viewers in Britain. Let's not even bother looking at the viewing figures for Songs of Praise, religion doesn't even come close to football in this country.

Of course there are many other religions in the UK but for most a declining pattern is emerging. The Roman Catholic Church would appear to be suffering the most. Its attendance in this country has declined 24% from 1980-97, as opposed to 15.6% for the Church of England. This is thought to stem from some of the Vatican's more controversial views - modern society sees the restriction of the distribution of condoms in the third world due to religious dogma as a crime against humanity in the light of the AIDS epidemic.

That football is more popular than religion in many countries is fairly obvious. But is football anything like a religion itself? Fans worship every weekend in venues where they engage in communal singing. Heroes are praised with chants of 'We're not worthy'. Rival fans are very intolerant of each other, just as followers of different faiths can be, and conflict often erupts. For example, Italy's Serie A is currently descending into a chaotic mix of racism, violence and corruption. Three teams - Napoli, Reggina, and Vicenza have been ordered to play home games away from their stadiums as a punishment for their fans' violent behaviour. Stoning, petrol bombing, stabbings and rioting have become regular features of Italian matches this season.

Both religion and football require obedience to particular rules, codes of conduct that must not be broken. Whether it's the Ten Commandments or the requirement to hate Celtic if you're a Rangers fan. Football does dominate the lives of many. Millions live for the teams they support; they will go great lengths to avoid missing a match, to catch the latest scores or team news. But I don't think having dedicated fans is enough to class football as a religion. There is no belief in a super-human controlling power in football. Fans watch, support and maybe even worship eleven men running around a pitch every weekend. That doesn't seem very spiritual. Gods are worshipped by their devoted followers irrespective of their current track record. The faithful don't get angry if God doesn't deliver a miracle every week. Football fans on the other hand do get very annoyed if their teams are not performing to the expected level, and miracles are often demanded.

While traditional religion is becoming less and less popular in many parts of the world it is not really likely that football is to blame for this trend. Religions are becoming outdated; people no longer need things to be explained in supernatural terms, science can provide better answers. Football is becoming more popular than ever but not at the expense of religion. There is simply no need for people to exclusively follow football or the church; they can easily do both if they want to.

Having said that there is one more interesting fact to note. The USA is unusually high up in the church attendance league table, 44% of this nation go to church once a week. This is very peculiar for a predominantly Protestant nation, which like Germany and Britain, usually have figures between two and twenty-something percent. The USA stands alone at the top of the table among strongly Catholic nations such as Ireland, Italy and many South American countries. What could explain such an abnormality? The USA remains one of the few countries resisting the popularity of the beautiful game - could this be just a coincidence?

© Jim Johnson 2001

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