Sunday saw thousands of Sunderland's congregation make the pilgrimage across the country all in the name of dedication to their football club. We were also treated to Keiran Richardson's public display of his faith. The similarities between our favourite past-time and organised religion are clear for all to see and this got me thinking, has football actually become a religion in it's own right?
Cue a ramble...
As Keiran Richardson capped off a flowing counter-attack on Sunday afternoon before Sky’s cameras with a rasping left footed drive which swerved past Wayne Hennessey at his near post he chose to celebrate in a familiar manner. Overcome with emotion and ecstasy the utility man tore off his shirt to reveal a vest with the slogan "I belong to Jesus" emblazoned upon it and received the appropriate, if ridiculous, punishment from the referee for removing his jersey.
This is not the first time that Keiran has used the spotlight to showcase his faith. Earlier this year Richardson was the saviour in a 2-1 away win at Bloomfield Road and upon bagging his first of two goals removed a shinpad upon which was adorned "God’s child". Of course Richardson is not alone with these religious gestures. The sight of a footballer entering the field of play only to stoop and touch the turf before performing the sign of the cross or Javier Hernandez’s now famous pre-match prayer in the centre circle, religion is not a stranger to the sport of football but has our favourite past-time now eclipsed simply existing as just a sport and become a religion in its own right?
I was brought up a Catholic as per my mother’s wishes and completed my education at Catholic schools where, as you can imagine, religious teachings were an integral part of the curriculum. By the time I had reached my teenage years the hour at church each Saturday evening and the countless hours of teachings in the classroom were becoming more and more of an inconvenience and I began to find, what I personally, perceived to be flaws in the teachings. Basically I discovered atheism and an agnostic frame of mind. Or so I thought.
At that stage of my life my Saturday afternoon’s were either spent with my father at The Stadium of Light or at Barnes Park playing football with my friends until we either ran ourselves into the ground or it simply became too dark to play, whichever came first. The necessity to return home to attend Evening Mass with my mother became a nuisance and I simply started to refuse to go, an act of insubordination that irked my parents no end.
Whilst at the time I believed I had triumphed over the oppressive nature of an aging culture based around blind faith had I had simply replaced one religion with another? The similarities between our beautiful game and organised religion are plain to see; I had simply substituted my place on a pew in a cold, dusty church for a cheap pink plastic seat at a football stadium.
Football grounds up and down the country are filled with thousands of adoring fans each weekend all eager to rejoice when fortune is on their club’s side but more often that not chastise their idols when all is not well, not too different from a church's loyal congregation looking to pay tribute to a higher power. We even offer songs of support and belief in our idols many of which take their origins from old hymns and often declaring blind, undying faith in our side which is undoubtedly miss placed. SAFC by far the greatest team the World has ever seen?
Footballer’s themselves are undoubtedly afforded the extravagance of God’s in this modern era, held in high regard and placed upon a pedestal for all to admire accordingly but we are just as quick to knock our footballers off said pedastal when the have wronged us. Much like the God’s and idols of the many differing religions practiced across the globe we too will question the status of other deities whom we don’t share the same belief in as much as our own. Scott Parker for example?
The action on the field of play is governed by a set of rules not too dissimilar to those which are preached in places of worship up and down the country, the Ten Commandments for example and are upheld by the referee who could easily be compared to a priest, pastor, etc.
Is there any real difference between the umpteen different channels dedicated to the larger more successful clubs that are now available on satellite television to the often ridiculed Evangelistic channels that can also be found just a few clicks of the remote away? Both are available often twenty-four hours a day providing coverage of their subject in an impassioned manner.
So whilst on the surface and from the similarities I have highlighted, of which there are countless more, it would appear that the parallel of football and religion is undeniable. However the key element of organised religion and arguably the most important is missing from football, unwavering faith without question. Followers of religion have a deep rooted belief in their chosen Gods and will offer up appropriate sacrifices to atone for their sins in an effort to appease a "super-human", all controlling power and earn their place in "heaven". Football fans however, our Gods and Idols can change at the drop of the hat, or more appropriately the sniff of a better deal elsewhere. Darren Bent was revered on Wearside, the great shining hope for the football club as with each goal that he slotted into the net saw Sunderland climb higher and higher up the League table. The echoes of his name reverberating around the Stadium of Light could still be heard when overnight he became a figure of hate and those cheers were replaced with jeers.
As football fans we also have some power and say in what happens with our club. Whilst a devout believer in their chosen religion may believe they can seek change through prayer they will often see no repercussions for their efforts. However as a football fan our voices can affect what we hold so close to our hearts. Steve Bruce’s demise with SAFC had long since began with his excruciatingly poor run of form before the dissenting voices following Sunderland’s defeat to Wigan but the cat-calls certainly acted as the final nail in his coffin. It is impossible to fathom the congregation down at the local church rising as one with a "Sack the board" chant if they felt their prayers were falling on deaf ears.
So despite the glaring similarities, football is not a religion, it is far more important than that and we have the ability to offer our vocal opinion.