“I’d change my religion before my team”, say football fans

by Mystical Mike

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

Fans agree with Eric Cantona that:  “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion… but never, never, can you change your favourite football team.”

Football fans are more likely to change their religion than the team they support, according to a national poll, published on the eve of Easter. 

Three-quarters (74.9%) of football season-ticket holders would sooner change their religion than the team they follow, while only one in 10 (10.2%) feel the opposite, reveals a poll commissioned by the makers of Warren United (www.warrenunited.net), a new animated sitcom about a fervent fan of a chronically disappointing football team. 

Even among less passionate fans, who attend only one or more games per season, well over half (55.6%) say they are more likely to change their religion than their team, while only 17.9% say the opposite – in a survey of 1201 fans conducted by the polling company TLF. 

“We don’t actually know the religion of Warren in Warren United”, says Simon Nye, the show’s lead writer, whose many previous credits include the sitcom Men Behaving Badly. “He’s not really a religious bloke. But then his family would tell you that football IS his religion and Brainsford United his denomination and team.” 

In our secular age, many have likened football to a substitute religion. Or, as Diego Maradona, the great Argentinian footballer put it, ““Football isn’t a game or a sport, it’s a religion”.

So, attending matches is a form of group devotion, which brings life meaning, while the football calendar brings it shape. There’s even communal singing in the form of football chants, and a faithful flock prone to messianic hopes on the coming of every new manager or star signing.   

No wonder that Pier Paulo Pasolini, the Italian film director, declared that, “Football is the last sacred ritual of our time”. 

“Warren in Warren United is definitely one of the long-suffering faithful”, says Simon Nye. 

Anthony Clavane, the author of Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, a recent book on Jews and football, says that when his rabbi bumped into Don Revie, the great manager of Leeds United, at a Jewish wedding, the rabbi told Revie that they shared the same congregation: the rabbi had them Saturday mornings, Revie Saturday afternoons. 

“Soccer isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism”, concedes Franklin Foer, American author of the book, How Soccer Explains the World. “But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions.” 

Songs of Praise, the most watched religious programme on British TV, these days attracts barely three million viewers. Even a routine weekly roundup of football highlights gets almost double that, while a big TV match can attract three or four times that number. 

Let’s not forget, however, that religion played a formative role in the rise of football in this country. Up to a quarter of League teams in English and Welsh football have their origins in church sides, formed in the late 19th century era of “muscular Christianity”. They include Everton, Aston Villa, Fulham, Southampton, Bolton and Wolves. There are still Christian leagues today, while professional clubs nowadays have club chaplains.  

Albert Camus, the French philosopher, claimed that, “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football”. But then Camus, like the late Pope John Paul, among other deep thinkers, was formerly a goalkeeper. 

This all helps explain why the idea of switching football clubs seems to fans like… well, sacrilege. Switch clubs? “Most fans cannot even be persuaded to switch seats”, observes Robert Shrimsley, a journalist and devoted fan of QPR. Fan loyalty rests far more on faith than reason; indeed, reason doesn’t come into it. 

It was, however, Eric Cantona, the French footballer and occasional philosopher, who put it best when he observed, “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion… but never, never, can you change your favourite football team.”

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