If anyone doubted that football really is the religion of the British male, there’s a story in the Guardian today that rather proves the point: last Saturday, a Manchester United player fell awkwardly in the course of an away game with Liverpool and broke his leg. When the ambulance taking him to hospital passed a pub where there were Liverpool supporters drinking, they left the pub, stoned the ambulance, and attempted to overturn it.
Anywhere else in the world, this sort of behaviour would be religiously inspired. The story that I thought of at once when I read it was the campaign of assassination against shi-ite doctors in Pakistan in the early part of this decade. Lexis Nexis wants three dollars for 200 words and I’m feeling cheap, but the glimpses I get from the search page suggest that at least 24 were murdered inside a year.
In this country, however, such brutal tribal passions need have no theological dimension. The hatred between Liverpool and Manchester is, like God, its own reason for existence.
Of course, not all the religious aspects of football revolve around communal hatreds. There is the solidarity with your own crowd, the mystical identification with your team, the veneration of relics (Alan Smith sent his shirt to the paramedics who had been in the ambulance with him), the communal singing. There may even be some kind of aesthetic experience involved. I myself would rather look at high windows than high crosses into the box but perhaps the flight of a ball through the air does have some kind of geometrical attractiveness.