Soccer 2, Saints 0: World Soccer as a Rival to Traditional Religion

February 1, 2017

I know a young man who is among the millions of young people worldwide who can recite the creed that “Arsenal is my religion” and “The Emirates is my church.” They not only recite the creed, but they also practice this faith commitment enthusiastically in place of attending church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. (It doesn’t help that professional European soccer league games are televised on Saturday and Sunday mornings in the United States!) For this young man and others, the “beautiful game” (as soccer is often called) competes fiercely with religious communities for the time and attention of adherents who would rather be fans or direct participants in playful games. Each moment they spend on soccer is a moment spent away from traditional religious activities. This is a problem for Christian communities that cannot be ignored.

While Reformed Christians believe that God is in all things—and that service in all spheres of life is service to the Creator of all—what happens if one sphere expands its reach at the expense of another? What if it turns out that young people are serving Sport as an idol to the detriment of worship of the true God? What if the rival liturgies of Sport are shaping young people to love The Game more than the Lord of all? What if sports are schooling people in harmful ways? And, if all this is true, what can churches do about it?

As Jamie Smith points out, “we are what we want.” We all participate in cultural liturgies like sport that shape our imaginations, our loves, and our desires. All humans serve something or someone. Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Is there evidence that soccer is a liturgy that shapes our hearts to serve other gods? Are people serving global soccer rather than the devil or the Lord? I worry that some are.

Soccer Is Popular Worldwide

For one thing, soccer attracts a large worldwide television audience. As soccer historian David Goldblatt puts it, global television viewing of the men’s World Cup finals is now “the single greatest simultaneous human collective experience.” Recently, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil drew “3 billion viewers in 204 countries,” making it “the most watched televised event in history.” If these three billion were adherents of a religion, they would far outnumber any of the world’s great faith groups. Whether the game is played for fun, viewed live in stadiums, or watched on television in national leagues, club competitions, or international tournaments, its reach is global.

Google Trends Explorer Searches (as of August 2015)

World football is a worldwide language that transcends geography and may even surpass languages of faith. As Harvard professor Hamid Dabashi put it, “The names of top strikers like Lionel Messi (Argentina), Robin van Persie (Netherlands), or Luis Suarez (Uruguay), are known better than the saints of any religion.” Young and old can talk about them around the world, just as they can talk about FIFA corruption or the fate of the Arsenal Football Club or the exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo. By contrast, talk of religious substance seems sectarian, arcane, irrelevant. It often divides people of diverse backgrounds rather than bringing them together around common things.

If we take Google searches as a measure, Professor Dabashi is correct: Beginning in 2004, people searched Google for information on the three players he named more often than they searched for information about St. Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most beloved of all Christian saints.

The Google Trends Explorer index of average search volume showed Messi (Red) in first place at eight, while Suarez (Green) is second at three. Poor Van Persie (Yellow) is tied with Saint Francis (Blue) at two. Even if we remove the significant uptick around the summer 2014 World Cup, each of the players got more searches throughout the period than poor Saint Francis. The score, you might say, is Soccer 2, Saints 0.

Global football, then, looks like a rival to the great world religions. It may be contributing to secularization—or, more accurately, luring people to an alternative form of sacralization. Is there evidence of this secularization process becoming a trend? And, if it is a real trend, what can churches do about it? To answer these questions, it’s time for a short foray into social survey data.

 Secularization as Dis-affiliation and Non-attendance

People of faith in the United States have begun to worry that rising numbers of young people may be leaving the church. Pew Research recently reported that rising percentages of Millennials (those between the ages of 19 and 34 in 2015) were “Nones” who declared no religious affiliation in surveys.

Likewise, fewer people of all ages declare in large national surveys that they attend religious services once a week or more than once a week (down from 35% in 1972 to 24% in 2014), while more people say in the same surveys that they “never” attend (up from 9% in 1972 to 26% in 2014).

In short, younger Americans are less inclined to affiliate with religion, while all Americans self-report less attendance at religious services (and sociologists of religion are quite sure that self-reports of weekly attendance are exaggerated upward due to “response bias”) . Could soccer play a role in contributing to such patterns?

Evidence from Soccer Club Members in the United Kingdom

While there are many surveys of American populations, only a few touch on respondents’ participation in watching or playing soccer—and the results from these are inconclusive for relationships between soccer and religious attendance or affiliation.

Percentages of 728 Soccer Club Members Practicing Their Religion (Source: Taking Part surveys, 2005–2008)

But the United Kingdom’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport carries out large and systematic surveys of individuals’ leisure habits, as well as their religious activity. Between 2005 and 2008, these Taking Part surveys gathered responses from over 70,000 individuals. Interviewers asked respondents if they had an affiliation with a religion. If the respondent said yes, then they were asked if they were currently practicing this religion. Interestingly, those who said that they were affiliated with a religion and that they had been a “member of a club in the last year” to play soccer (a total of 728 people) were more likely to indicate they were not practicing their religion than would have been expected from a more randomized distribution in line with the general population of respondents.

Similarly, when we turn to religious affiliation—instead of self-reported attendance behavior—we also find that Taking Part survey respondents who said they had played soccer in the previous year were more likely than predicted by the general sample to identify as atheist or agnostic or having no religious affiliation. They were also less likely to be affiliated with a religious group.

Percentage of 5,778 Soccer Players Religiously Affiliated (Source: Taking Part surveys, 2005-2008)

In short, there may be something to the notion that soccer players are less likely to affiliate with or attend services in their religious communities. My hunch, based on participant-observation watching several professional soccer games recently, is that multiple levels of the game form rival liturgical communities that shape participants in ways that mimic Christian liturgy: gathering, joining the tailgate, engaging in fellowship, lifting one’s voice in song, seeking to be transformed, being dismissed. Other sports may well do the same. In social life, proof is hard to come by, but the trend is worth watching—especially as soccer grows steadily in popularity in the United States and Canada.

What Can Churches Do?

Sports theologian Lincoln Harvey argues that sport is fundamentally the free play of bodily creatures and has its own internal purposes, serving nothing outside itself, which he calls “the liturgical celebration of contingency.” On the one hand, churches should celebrate this playfulness, embrace it as part of our embodied creatureliness, and support sporting activities as refreshing for all human creatures.

On the other hand, churches will have to help members discern when participation in such activities crosses the line into idolatry. Churches in the United States and the industrialized world will also need to consider how rival liturgies are luring some away from organized religion. Instead of trying to compete directly for adherents, they might study the ways in which sports celebrate embodiment. Protestant churches in particular are always susceptible to gnostic and docetic tendencies that overly spiritualize faith. By celebrating liturgies that enchant, inspire, and engage the whole human person—the whole physical body— churches may direct people away from mere temples like the Emirates stadium and toward the city that needs no temple (Revelation 21:22).

About the Author
  • Scott Waalkes is Professor of International Politics at Malone University in Canton, Ohio. He is the author of the 2010 book, The Fullness of Time in a Flat World: Globalization and the Liturgical Year. His most recent article is “Does Soccer Explain the World or Does the World Explain Soccer? Soccer and Globalization.”

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