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If football is the new religion then I’m an atheist

 

 

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too…

 

ONE of the worst things about the modern world is that John Lennon does not live in it. However good the past 32 years and almost 10 months have been for you, they would have been that bit more intriguing and vital for Lennon’s presence.

You could never second guess what somebody as original as Lennon would say or do but you’d have to think he’d include a reference to sport if he was penning a song like Imagine now.

His iconoclastic words from 1971 were directed towards states and religions but the more time passes, the more it becomes clear that if people don’t have religion, they will find something else to lose the plot over.

The parallels between sport and religion are many and obvious; a trip to a stadium and a lively church both offer the facility for communalism, worship, singing, a demonstration of faith.

Sport, though, increasingly offers the chance to let your faith cross the divide into zeal and plain old lunacy. None of us are immune.

Many of us have had that moment of revelation and self-discovery. Mine was similar to a lot of other folks’. It arrived some seasons ago when I was sitting in a quiet pub having a quiet drink with the better half. A match that I wasn’t interested in was on the screen and there were a couple of lads in replica jerseys watching.

They were cursing at the ref, the opposition players, their own players; grimacing, grinning maniacally, grinding their teeth; basically doing a decent impression of wackos on the loose.

Just as I was about to say that a couple of nuthouses were short a couple of permanent guests, I caught myself. For then came the moment of dreadful self-awareness. They were behaving just like I did when my team played. A thousand strangers had probably looked at me the same way, half in amusement, half in fear, but I hadn’t noticed. I was too busy being “passionate”.

This passion is not just a reaction to what’s happening in the moment. It is has roots. Every football club worth its weight in replica shirts has a story. Stories are important, just ask God. I’m not flippant when I say that. The old joke about the devil having the best tunes but God the best lyrics is spot on. You won’t find more inspiring, engaging stories than you will in the Bible. You’re going nowhere without a narrative.

There’s some great footballing narratives out there. My club Spurs are particularly strong in this department. “The game is about glory,” said Danny Blanchflower. “It’s about finishing with a flourish… going out to beat the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”

Bill Nicholson said: “It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory.”

Hey, it gives you something to cling to while conceding late equalisers to West Brom.

Manchester United are the Busby Babes — swagger allied to graft, born to put on a show for the hard-working people of Salford. And London’s stockbroker belt.

Liverpool’s mythology is arguably the most moving of the lot. Shankly spoke of socialist football; everybody labouring towards the same ends and everybody sharing in the rewards. “I’m just one of the people who stands on the Kop,” the great man said. “They think the same as I do, and I think the same as they do.”

Of all the clubs I don’t support, Liverpool have always been the one I’d admired the most. I love their sense of otherness, not English but Scouse; proud, defiant, unyielding. This sense of defiance is most clear now in the brave and tireless campaign for Justice for the Hillsborough 96.

In the less serious week-in-week-out fandom though, large amount of Liverpool fans have misplaced the plot. Loathe as I am to accept the prevailing wisdom of the day (because it’s usually wrong), their defence of Luis Suarez last season was curious. His explanation for racist remarks was at best illogical.

Rather than see the issue for what it was — an open and shut case of a player behaving disgracefully — an overwhelming sense of misplaced righteousness was present. People could not, it seems, separate the justifiable attack on Suarez’s actions with an attack on Liverpool.

There was a refusal to acknowledge that somebody wearing the Liverpool colours could be the wrong-doer. This is faith taking the slip road into fanaticism. The bigger the myth surrounding your club, the more people buy into it, the more mental they go when somebody challenges anything to do with your club.

It’s no coincidence that Liverpool probably have the highest number of nutters with Talksport on speed dial. And that Manchester United are not far adrift — the amount of them that showed up outside Wayne Rooney’s house looking for a “chat” two years ago when he handed in a transfer was alarming. Nobody leaves the church!

I can’t really take the moral high ground here. I still have a big problem with Sol Campbell for instigating a transfer to Arsenal from Spurs. But I don’t want to see him hurt over it. Well, a few more enthusiastic sliding tackles that left him face down in the dirt would have been all right.

He abandoned the faith but you have to let that stuff go. To have true faith as fans you must be confident in what you believe in. A death-to-non-believers attitude belies extreme insecurity.

Ultimately, I’m ambivalent about club’s mythologising themselves. The stories are great but you’d have to ask whether they serve any purpose now beyond being a slogan on official merchandise.

Does Jake Livermore believe in the glory game? Is Daniel Agger a disciple of socialist football? Is Rio Ferdinand driven by the need to put on a show for the hard-working people of Manchester? I don’t know.

If people relaxed and approached their teams with a little perspective it would be a healthy thing. Back when football was an affordable form of entertainment for the masses, lots of fans watched Spurs one week and then Arsenal the next. The North London derby is just an example; supporters did likewise all over the country.

It’s not just the price that prohibits people from doing that today; you would be made to feel like a heretic now for such behaviour.

Liverpool and United’s rivalry is now so poisonous that a small group of fans on either side feel it acceptable to chant about the loss of life both clubs have felt through football. Even during the week of the Hillsborough Report, some Man U fans were still determined to drag the fixture through the dirt two weekends ago.

This overblown feud is as almost as old as the mythology surrounding both clubs. You might say I’m a dreamer… but it’s high time these people abandoned sport as a surrogate religion, cooled down on what’s passed and started living for today.

 

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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