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Football: the 21st century religion

Football: the 21st century religion?

Football’s governing bodies FIFA and UEFA today made two announcements that show that however slowly they act, positive change can be brought into the game when the will of the fans is at stake. Two extra officials will take part in this year’s Champions League competition (after a successful trial run in the Europa League last year) while FIFA has confirmed that goal-line technology will be on the agenda of the next Annual Business Meeting of the International Football Association Board in October.

Goal-line technology has been debated to thoroughly over the past month since Lampard’s ‘goal’ against Germany, that many would be done with the notion simply so they can stop reading about it and hearing about it in the media on a daily basis. However goal-line technology is now front page news. When millions of people see a goal and wonder how the two men that count couldn’t see it there is predictable uproar. But football wasn’t always that way.

The era of celebrity has led as much as anything to football making the front pages. But now the sport itself, the results, the finances, the names and faces are of more importance worldwide than they ever have been. The Beckham era, when front pages devote time to a footballer having a boot kicked at him, wearing a sarong or sitting on a bench for a world cup campaign for which he has no part, helped make football sexy again. Not one man, but suddenly a crop of men were being treated like demi-gods. Each club had their pin-up, their idol. And the attention began to shift from the beautiful game to the beautiful people playing the game.

But when the sport became sexy, it attracted more fans. And more airtime. Super Sunday on SkySports is now given an almost reverential air. Choirs sing in the background to montages of the biggest players in action. Cameras show fans swarming back to the grounds, decked out in blue and red. Good vs Evil. Competing for bragging rights, chanting in support of their team.

Referees are generally far better than they get credit for and often have to put up with abuse based on a sole incorrect decision they have made during a game. However unfortunately football is no longer just a sport, it is a business and big business at that. To support a team these days is to love a team, hate the opposition and god help a referee who gets in the way. Merchandising is such that club colours are worn like permanent, tattooed badges and clubs are often associated with the beliefs of a city’s people.

Football is like a new religion for the 21st century.

Granted not everyone is a football fan, in the same way that not everyone is religious, however football supporters are now staunchly, fiercely devoted to their team to an extent that the ‘it’s just a game‘ element has, in the professional game, gone out the window. Hatred between opposing football fans within cities has always been there, for example Celtic and Rangers supporters are associated with different religious beliefs, to the extent that when Roman Catholic and former Celtic star player Mo Johnston signed for Rangers in 1989 there was uproar.

Rivalries exist all over the globe, from South America to Europe and from Africa to China. Rioting football fans are described as hooligans and the term ‘football hooliganism’ is one that applies to no other sport. It is also akin to sectarianism. Bigotry, discrimination or hatred for another group (or in this case the team they support).

However it fails to take into account the positive nature that shines through from the world’s biggest game. The chants from terraces (even offensive ones can be too intelligent for the easily shocked to be disgusted); the singing; the trip to your first game; walking up the steps under floodlight; the billions of column inches lapped up by the fans; your first replica jersey; your first win; your first tears of defeat; watching games with people aged five to 95 – each with an opinion; where you were when di Stefano/ Pele/ Best/ Maradona/ Zidane/ Messi scored that goal; recreating that goal minutes after the final whistle; supporting a rival team to your best friend; getting to a cup final; teaching your children about the game and hearing old stories from those before you.

If you are lucky enough to support a team in the Champions League you hear the theme coming over the tannoy and know you are in for a special night. International players stand heads bowed or held high to their national anthem. The Match of the Day theme starts and you relax into the sofa. The game continues to enthrall and for some, this writer included, it acts almost as a complete belief system. There is one game. There are many different nationalities and many different teams, but your team is the one true team.

They each play the one game where there are holy grails to be won and supporters can turn to fanatics, often (but not always) to the detriment of the game. Each fan worships his players (who would often like to believe in themselves as gods) and curses them when things go wrong but believes in them through thick and thin.

One of the most overused quotable quotes of all time belongs to Bill Shankly and his immortal line Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Critics of religion today often point to the fact that it fails to change with the times. Football’s governing bodies often make the same mistake. It is the beautiful game, it doesn’t need to be tampered with. Bringing in goal-line technology will slow down the game, it hasn’t been used for the last 150 years, why now? Referees do a good job, they receive too much criticism. All fine statements. But the beautiful game is everyone’s beautiful game. Change with the times before people give up and walk away.

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