Football and Religion: Tales of Hope, Play & Passion

A mixed media exhibition with illustrated works by Ed Merlin Murray

6 September – 12 October 2023 

AKC Gallery & AKU-ISMC exhibition on tour at the Ismaili Centre, Lisbon, Portugal. 

Presented by the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU- ISMC) and the Aga Khan Centre Gallery, this exhibition explores the relationship between football and religion and how the two are often connected, with players praying on the pitch and fans observing religious rituals in tandem. The wider narrative across the exhibition examines football’s ability to champion social causes, promote marginalised voices, and create opportunities for inclusion and diversity in ways no other sport can.

Originally shown at the Aga Khan Centre in London, 2022, this iteration of the exhibiton brings a connection to the Portugese game. The exhibition includes interviews with two Portugese football professionals João Pereira, coach of Sporting Clube de Portugal Under 23, and Rahim Ahamad, fan and member of Sporting Clube de Portugal, who share their personal stories and relationship between football and religion.

The exhibition provides a narrative on the subject through a snapshot of social history and contemporary commentary with a selection of books, magazines and newspaper articles, relevant objects, and artefacts. This narrative provides the contextual backdrop for a series of new artworks created by visual artist, illustrator, and animator Ed Merlin Murray.

Murray has created a series of short animations presented as an immersive installation depicting interviews with a number of male and female football players describing their personal relationship to football and religion. The players selected are from across the world and all are at different stages of their careers — from Aksa Nisar, a 17-year-old south Asian player in the early stages of her career, to Cheikhou Kouyaté, a Senegalese professional footballer who plays for Premier League club Crystal Palace, and Linvoy Primus MBE, an English former professional footballer who played for Portsmouth and Charlton Athletic FC. The exhibition also includes full interview transcripts as way of sharing the wider conversations and individuals’ impassioned tales of hope, passion, and play.

Murray’s urban style of illustration provides a playful visual narrative, set among a variety of other commentary material. For the London exhibition, he created an interactive piece, inspired from works he created during the lockdown. This is in the form of a phenakistiscope, or ‘magic disc’ — a revolving turntable artwork that reveals an image when recorded with a smart phone. The phenakistiscope was the first widespread animation device that created a fluent illusion of motion in 1833 – a short clip of him playfully animating this, has been added to the main film.

Murray has also created a series of portraits of the individuals we interviewed for this exhibition. The portraits are presented as traditional football cards and form a football team unique to this exhibition. This ‘unique team’ includes portraits of Dr Zafar Iqbal, Head of Medical at Crystal Palace FC, Hannah Finlayson, Club Co-ordinator at Abresham Girls FC and Matt Baker, Director of Sport Chaplaincy UK.

The accompanying historical and contemporary exhibits in the vitrines reveal important collaborations with a variety of organisations and specialists in the field of football and religion. They include items kindly loaned from the National Football Museum, UK in the form of a song sheet for the FA Cup Final including the hymn Abide With Me and a cigarette card of a player who was devout Christian and refused to play on Good Friday and Christmas Day throughout his career.

Continuing the link between historical references and modern-day life, there is archival material on the infamous Netty Honeyball. Also referred to as Nettie J. Honeyball, she was the founder of the British Ladies’ Football Club, the first known women’s association football club, and one of their players until spring 1895. This sits alongside A Woman’s Game: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Women’s Football by Suzanne Wrack, published June 2022 and ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ — an iconic comedy film directed by Gurinder Chadha, which tells the tale of two British female football players and their cultural and religious struggles.

Other reference material includes the catalogue of the Jewish Museum’s Four Four Jew: Football, Fans and Faith — a major exhibition in 2014 in London, shown alongside Professor Anthony Clavane’s book; Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? and articles on current issues around race, identity, and inclusion.

The exhibition is by no means a formal statement on the confluence of football and religion but a glimpse into the subject through a series of stories, ideas and experiences from individuals and organisations connected with both the world of sport and that of the spirit. The exhibition touches upon the diversity of the subject and how these worlds are becoming increasingly interwoven as awareness grows of the cultural and religious needs of players and of others involved in the game. And indeed, how social attitudes and ideas are evolving as a result.

As part of the exhibition Dr Mark Doidge Principal Research Fellow in the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Brighton, has written a short piece on the subject of football and religion, click here to read the essay.