The man pointed at the crowd, utterly focused, poker-faced, no tells. All around him, limbs flailed wildly, celebrating as though possessed, people standing at their seats, besotted by the man in front of them – fixated, wide-eyed and jaws agape. It was celebratory, ecstatic, pure faith. Hardly two seconds later, a roar erupts from him and everyone falls to their seats. Some even to the floor... Welcome to Benny Hinn’s congregation. 

American evangelical Christianity is a highly performative expression of faith and many of us will be able to recognise these on-stage pastors, blasting their audience with exorcism-by-roar from YouTube in clips artfully edited with a soundtrack that probably wasn’t on the pastor’s playlist. Traditional Catholics celebrate the same religion, but very differently. The traditionalists among them, the purists, are flocking back to Latin Mass, acquainting themselves with theologian Thomas Aquinas and demanding that the next Pope isn’t as lenient as Francis. Then there’s the Puritans, but that’s a whole different story. 

Although these differences manifest in the behaviours of the faithful, there are some religious ‘pillars’ that are evident in almost all, a recognisable list of exactly what it is that makes a religion a religion. Firstly, the idea of God, a supernatural entity of whom holds the highest chair. Then we have the accompanying ways to praise him: rites, rituals, sacrifices, songs, texts, imagery, place of worship, attire and you, me, us and them – the disciples. 

These religious scenes are familiar in other parts of life too. In an increasingly secular Europe, we’re beginning to find our faith in football. Comparing football to a religious experience or practice is not new, yet the analysis of it is still in its infancy. As David Goldblatt wrote in The Age of Football: “If football’s place in global sporting culture has become almost unassailable, its weight, relative to other cultural forms and industries, has also sharply risen. It bears comparison with the world’s religions, not as a system of belief or alternative metaphysics, but in the scale, regularity and profundity of its cycles and rituals.” 

Goldblatt, football’s pre-eminent sociologist and anthropologist, has long sought to situate the game in a global and human context, and framing it as a phenomenon – something hitherto naively overlooked in historical texts despite its evident significance. But what do we mean when we think of football as a religion? 

Over a century before Goldblatt, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim set out to define religion as a social phenomenon: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Durkheim maps out a theory of religion as understood and practised through secular entities. We were religious before we had a God. 

Sociologically speaking, and to create a foundation for the rest of this analysis, football is quasi-religious – not in any way actually religious, despite almost identical markers. Durkheim is clear in his assessment that religious experiences arise from several social factors like actions, structures and behaviours. He’s not saying that religious experience is an insular and innate thing that pops up in other parts of society. It’s not at simple as denoting something that resembles religion as being ‘religious’. 

Religion is constructed by us, therefore, and not a naturally occurring series of behaviours; rather, these behaviours long pre-date the advent of religion. How we act is somewhat innate, religion is not. Religious practices in society are complex and reliant on several intertwined social manifestations. First come our social bonds and from them sprout the ideas that we might now think of as ‘religious experience’. Football then isn’t necessarily like religion, but instead, deeply human, falling along the same tribal contours that religions have. 

Yet, the lexicon of faith is still the most powerful and accurate that we know to use in sports and one we often turn to. Semantics aside, the link between religious thinking and ‘football thinking’ gives us a unique insight into societal shifts and presents an important question – what makes us think of a ‘footballing experience’ in the same way as a ‘religious experience’? Surely we aren’t so lazy with our metaphors and similes as to just fall back on religion to define our beloved sport? The reality is that no, what we see in football is some eternal truth that manages to reverberate through societies all over the world. 

To football, as religion, we show our faith and pay our respects through a series of rituals. It is in the performative aspect of fandom that religion and football intersect in the most interesting way. No other sport has a lexicon as littered with religious imagery and none has such a global reach. And none is more wildly fanatic. 

The example in the introduction could just as well have been a player celebrating a goal in front of ecstatic fans. To think of these fervent supporters worshipping their heroes at matches they make considerable sacrifices to attend, in search of catharsis on a Saturday afternoon isn’t particularly unusual. But in that sentence, you’ll see numerous words with religious connotations. 

In the winding streets of Naples, Vespas navigate cobbles redolent with various kitchen scents as vendors hawk religious icons. If it isn’t an image of the Virgin Mary, Jesus or God, it’ll be something to do with Diego Maradona – likely his iconic No.10 jersey. Maradona, a man who to many was more god than man. 

Such was the veneration of him that onlookers fought just to touch him as if some of his magic, or something equally as holy and otherworldly, would enter their lives. These practices aren’t limited solely to players either. Match day itself also brings out ritual. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano wrote that, “All that exists is the temple. In this sacred place, the only religion without atheists puts its divinities on display.” Football then, to Galeano, has no atheists, only believers, and on match day it presents itself as something regularly breathtaking and divine. Even before the whistle blows we have the pre-match ritual. 

This can range from the elaborate choreography of pyrotechnic displays down to fans wearing specific ‘lucky’ underwear on the day of the game. On the pitch, teams themselves engage in this too, knowing the power to be harnessed. Some of these rituals hold the role of a war chant, taking place before the match as a way of drumming up support in the crowd, bringing every last individual into the collective. Excuse the New Age woo, but if done correctly the energy present is truly palpable and infectious – not all that’s measured is worthwhile; likewise, not everything that’s worthwhile can be measured. Faith in a god or a football team is largely an invisible pursuit. 

When Benfica inaugurated their new Estadio da Luz in 2004 they instituted a practice that is now deeply ingrained in the club’s culture – the flying of the eagle before the game. In the minutes leading up to kick-off, the atmosphere begins to build with the fans singing their hymn, before the eagle, either Victoria or Gloria, both of whom live in the stadium, circles the fans in a majestic soar before swooping down to land on and thus complete the crest, the herald for rapturous and collective applause that ushers in the players. 

Other clubs have rituals that occur throughout the game. Although some of these have deep historical contexts, there are examples around the world that are more contemporary, created precisely for the power they are able to harness. Many of these can be found in North America’s Major League Soccer, a place where football is quickly becoming an important cultural touchstone alongside their more traditionally popular sports. 

Portland Timbers draw on their environment and past with their mascot Timber Joey. The mythology of the lumberjack in the state is of a stoic and strong-willed figure, already an archetype heavily imbued with religious parallels. In the Timbers’ earliest incarnation, playing in the North American Soccer League, it was Timber Jim who would entertain fans by climbing up large pieces of timber and revving his chainsaw to the crowd. An avid outdoorsman, he was a relatable yet idealistic figure for fans to identify with. 

This club, and its subsequent editions, folded. For the most recent incarnation, the Timbers drew upon the legacy of Jim and gave the fans Joey. Joey, like Jim, cuts off a slice of a tree for every goal his side scores, presenting it to the player after the match. As a mascot, it’s not the chainsaw, nor the cutting, that generates the connection, but the relationship it evokes between people and place. Oregon is the woodland capital of the US and Portland has always viewed itself as a city of outsiders – both literally in their proclivity for outdoor activities and that they’re a city proud to do things a little differently (the city’s motto is “Keep Portland Weird”). When building the latest version of the club, this tradition couldn’t be lost – it’s the thread that runs through fans from each previous generation up until now. It’s Jim and Joey that planted the Timbers’ roots. 

Clubs like Benfica or Portland Timbers can be seen as ‘totems’ – an entity that gathers community around it to form unity and identity. It is not a supernatural being, rather a symbol of it. Totems, like clubs, can vary depending on how a certain societies perceive their totem and the way we express our relationship to it is all-telling as to how this group relates to the larger idea of football and its place in their community and society. 

Durkheim describes the totem thus: “On the one hand, [the totem] is the external and tangible form of what we have called the... god. But on the other, it is the symbol of that particular society we call the clan. It is its flag; it is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from others, the visible mark of its personality.” A totem then is both symboliser and symbol, described by Michael Serazio in The Power of Sports as, “while officially symbolising deities” also offering “vessels for fellowship, licences to congregate together”. 

You’ll often hear the phrase ‘pillar of society’ or ‘heart of the community’. These words, ‘pillar’ and ‘heart’, carry the same centrality and permanence as the idea of a totem. Through a club, whether a city has one or more, locals and fans from afar can organise and co-ordinate as small parts of a far greater sum – regardless of geography and other limiting factors. Religion, bound largely by the catchment area of its parish, usually has its followers in a local area. Another attribute of the totem that Serazio goes on to discuss is that a child will be born into it. Those who later switch allegiances are treated with “the same ostracism familiar to heretics and apostates”. The football club, when viewed as a totem, is as intangible and representative as it is a physical entity. 

The football club, like the church, is a place that binds. However, with religious observance falling in the UK, Europe and the United States, it’s in sport that people often find community and form their own identity as part of a collective. Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with an estimated 2.3 billion followers. Association football, on the other hand, has an estimated 4 billion global fans. As the world’s most popular sport, it makes sense to fall into the natural rhythms of human life, just as religions did, and still do. 

Social media, alongside the increase in the use of handheld devices, are factors attributed to a new wave of individualism in society. Companies want customers and online ‘influencers’ have them in abundance as fans. It’s easier to sell yourself than a group. Yet football’s increasing influence bucks this trend. It’s easy to see why people attach to football in the first place – for community and identity. But how does it keep growing and religion not? 

Although totem is a word that denotes something central and static, the practices and rituals surrounding these totems are often in a state of flux, a dynamic that has allowed religion to endure and football fan-culture to thrive in such a small period of time. This state is part of a transformative process for practitioners, creating what the anthropologist Victor Turner calls communitas within our structured society. This is an unstructured fringe where, separate from the prevailing mode of society, people are equal, united and a sense of community prevails – yet it’s also chaotic, exciting and subject to change and growth. 

In the way that a Catholic Mass could be considered communitas, so too could Borussia Dortmund’s famous yellow wall. Communitas is an invitation to liminality or chaos, a fertile and creative ground where seemingly anything can happen. One is far more likely to return to, or recommend, a Mass when the priest orates a relatable and insightful homily than not. This is a part of what keeps fandom exciting and draws us into the game of football, yet possibly why religious practice is stagnating. 

During a liminal stage, transformations occur; new chants, new players and new managers. Responding in an organic collective is the communitas that ties it all together. It’s a community where people respond in a group (not necessarily in the same way, but to the same stimuli). Without community, we become isolated and alienated. Human nature gravitates towards the collective. It’s tribal, coded deep into the collective subconscious. Communitas is people trying to find their way and to make sense of the world around them. To attach themselves to something that has more significance than the individual. Its power lies in its ability to allow an individual to transcend ‘normal’ society through shared experience. By transcending the rules that usually govern our daily lives, fans can find transcendence through sports. 

Durkheim’s ‘religious experience’ stipulates that our human needs and desires existed before we imprinted religion onto them. Communitas in football is a more contemporary and lived understanding of this theory. The word religion takes its etymological roots from the Latin word religare, to bind. Binding, between peoples, is an existential idea of facing the same direction. In order for something to work most effectively, it is best to act as a collective of people, to harness the power of the masses and find identity through solidarity. In moments of weakness, too, it is easier to share the burden that hold it singly. 

Shared suffering is one of the defining factors of identity. Nationally speaking, that is a country grouping together to remember those who have sacrificed their life in war. Religiously, suffering is closely tied to discipline and sacrifice – central tenets of almost all faiths. When followers of Islam participate in Ramadan, they take suffering upon themselves as a group and find transcendence and purification through it. 

Suffering is something that many football fans know all too well. Still, it ties us to the totem and around it fans construct rituals and superstitions. There are few moments as powerful as Benfica fans’ rendition of Tu és o nosso rei, Eusébio (You are our king, Eusébio) in the 72nd minute of each game, no matter the score, to remember their most iconic player who died shortly before his 72nd birthday. 

On the flip side of shared suffering is a phenomenon Durkheim calls collective effervescence. When Sir Alex Ferguson said, “I don’t think there is a better football celebration ever in the game,” on Hibs fans’ rendition of The Proclaimers’ ‘Sunshine on Leith’ after winning the 2016 Scottish Cup final, he’d have few opponents. Football fans worldwide will have felt goosebumps when they saw it. It wasn’t only a case of singing in a moment of victory, but exorcising the years of narrow defeats. The lyrics couldn’t be more befitting to the moment, contributing to the immeasurable synchronicity experienced in religious and spiritual ceremony. 

Reaching an emotional crescendo to the lyrics, “While the Chief puts sunshine on Leith, I’ll thank Him, for His work, and your birth, and my birth.” The Proclaimers, writing about their beloved home, imbue it with an otherworldly quality – thanking God for making it what it is. Through singing, football fans and churchgoers become a whole, not only with each other but with every facet of the faith. 

In the West, we are conditioned by Judeo-Christian history, its belief systems and subsequent socialising
and behaviours. But as Durkheim made clear, these behaviours manifested before religion gave name to them and only since the advent of religion are these behaviours framed as ‘religious’. The experiences weren’t religious, but fundamentally human. As Michael Novak says in Joy of Sports: “The athlete may of course be pagan, but sports are, as it were, natural religions.” It’s thanks to Durkheim that we are able to understand religion and its practice as ‘natural’, and it is in this lineage that sports has ingrained itself into culture. It’s also why it has endured – even when other similarly ‘religious’ equivalences like politics, and religion itself, lose footing. 

We may be hasty to draw parallels between football behaviours and religious ones, simply because we are conditioned to think that way – it’s what we know. Football might evoke such devotion and on such a large scale that we understand it in the light of the most significant shaping factor in societal growth – religion – but through a Durkheimian reading, football is simply another collective experience running along our most natural and basest fault lines. That’s why it gets into our blood in a way we can’t shake. 

Durkheim captured it best when he wrote: “Within a crowd, we become susceptible to feelings and actions of which we are incapable on our own.” That’s all we are looking for really – collective transcendence from loneliness, isolation and our everyday lives. It’s primal scream therapy and an ancient tribal gathering rolled into one. We once found this in religion, but then came football.