Football Is More Than A Secular Religion

By Dr Mark Doidge

Football is an excellent way of understanding who we are — who we socialise with, how we see other people, and the ways in which we interact with others. Football, like life, is a paradox. It is about rivalries and competition, solidarity and teamwork, division, and unity. To play football, two teams have to cooperate to compete. They abide by a set of laws, but with variations based on culture, traditions, conventions, skills, strategy, and tactics. Fans and players may divide themselves on who they are and who they are not — choices often symbolised in club colours, styles of play and perceived status — but they are still participating in the same event.

Football, like society, is not homogenous. It is comprised of many different people, with different experiences, cultures, religions, and personalities. By taking part in the ritual of football, we become part of a larger community. Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, identified that the key social components of religion are the foundational components of society. Regular congregation at a sacred space to perform collective rituals creates a ‘collective effervescence’ where the individuals become a community and identify themselves as such.

Sport and religion are intimately entwined throughout history. Ancient Greek funerary games were seen as the most fitting way of honouring the death of heroes. The Olympics were held in honour of Zeus, which is why the ancient site of Olympia is home to sanctuaries, temples, and sport facilities. The Mesoamerican ballgame, ōllamaliztli or pitz, had ritual and religious significance and was incorporated into theological and cosmological foundation myths. Sumo is tied to the Shinto religion, and many East Asian martial arts are connected to Buddhism and Taoism.

Practically, sport and religion are linked because religious events gave people respite from their other duties, so they had time to focus on playful activities. In the UK, Shrove Tuesday provided a space for traditional ball games like Cornish hurling, Atherstone or Cnapan. Uppies and downies in Kirkwall, Orkney, takes place on Christmas Day. The more regular ‘day of rest’ in the Christian calendar is the reason that football is predominantly played on Sundays around the world.

The development of modern codified sport in Britain was also inherent to Victorian Protestantism. The concept of ‘muscular Christianity’ built on the ancient concept of a healthy mind in a healthy body and utilised sport to build the virtues of Victorian masculinity, both at home and in the colonies. As Britain rapidly became industrialised and urbanised throughout the 19th century, new forms of collective solidarity were required. Trade Unions fought for workers to have Saturday afternoons off. This led to religious and political leaders fearing for the morality of the nation as urban workers spent their new leisure time gambling and drinking. As a consequence, many early football teams, such as Exeter City, Southampton, and Everton, were founded by churches and religious groups. Paradoxically, others, like Plymouth Argyle, Grimsby Town, and the Football Association itself — were founded in pubs. Holding matches on a Saturday afternoon became a way of keeping these workers away from drinking and gambling (ironically). The Saturday match, however, excluded orthodox Jews who could not play on the Shabbat. This led to the establishment in 1899 of the oldest Sunday League, formed exclusively of Jewish teams.

As regular rituals that entice and engage their followers, sport and religion have continued to grow together. As football expanded across the world through the trade and colonialism of the British Empire, it was also quickly adopted by Catholic European and Latin American countries. Football in these countries incorporated Catholic aspects. Each year at Superga, Torino football club commemorate the Grande Torino team who all died in a plane crash on 4th May 1949. A memorial stands outside the Basilica of Superga and acts as a shrine and site of commemoration.

Players get sanctified as celebrities. This is seen dramatically with one player. During the 1980s, Naples subtly changed some of their famous street shrines to the Madonna into shrines to the footballer, Diego Maradona, on account of his miraculous exploits for Napoli. Maradona himself suggested there was divine intervention in one of his goals against England in 1986 with his now famous phrase about his winning goal being scored with the ‘hand of God’. In Rosario, Argentina, this has gone one step further with a Church of Maradona founded in 1998.

People from many cultures and religions fell in love with football as it continued its global expansion. Football is one of the many impacts of the British Empire on India — and in Calcutta it resulted in three teams, one Muslim (Mohammedan Sporting Club) and two Hindu (East Bengal and Mohun Bagan). Football clubs became one way of exhibiting a range of identities, including religious and migrant (such as at Rangers and Celtic, respectively Protestant and Catholic teams).

Even though Mohammed Salim signed for Celtic from Mohammedan in 1936, it is only recently that more Muslim players have been visible on football pitches across the country. Sometimes the culture and commercialism of football can conflict with players’ beliefs, as with Newcastle’s Pappa Cissé who refused to wear a shirt with the logo of the payday loan firm of Wonga. FIFA banned the hijab from 2007 to 2014, effectively barring Muslim women from playing. Clubs and governing bodies are slowly recognising the importance of supporting their players (and fans and employees) of different faiths by celebrating different religious festivals and incorporating multi-faith prayer rooms.

Covid and recent events have shown us that there are things more important than football, as Arrigo Sacchi once observed, “Of all the things that don’t matter, football is the most important”. Nonetheless, football continues to matter to people and is still the regular space that welcomes anyone who wants to take part. Football as a sport and as an industry should recognise that religion is a key part of many people’s identity and sense of self, and work hard to be inclusive for all.


Dr Mark Doidge is Principal Research Fellow in the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Brighton. His research focuses on political activism among football fans across Europe, particularly anti-racism, supporting refugees, and environmentalism. He is the author of a number of books, including Ultras: The Passion and Performance of Contemporary Football Fandom (2020), A Short Guide to Sociology (2020), Collective Action and Football Fandom (2018), and Football Italia (2015). He is also a trustee of the British Sociological Association, a committee member of Football Supporters Europe, and a fan of Whitehawk FC.