Culture of Soccer Week 1 (From Ancient Games to Modern Football)

Week one of Michigan State Online Course ISS 328 Culture of Soccer had to do with the formation of the beautiful game that has arguably grown in to a religion.  Professor Peter Alegi kicked things off with this post:

Why do Atheists Pray at Soccer Games?

“Soccer is a religion”—how many times have you heard or read this cliché? Outside the United States, the phrase is often used to describe the profound passion for “football” that envelops, even defines, countries like Brazil, Argentina, England, Italy, and South Africa.

This week’s readings on the Maya and Inuit ball games illustrate how spirituality and other cultural practices, beliefs, symbols and world-views have long influenced the history of football in starkly different regions of the planet.

Yet if soccer is genuinely global and if it shares much in common with religion to this day, what kind of religion is it? Traditional? Modern? Universal, like Islam or Christianity? Who are the high priests? What does its God look like? Thinking about continuity and change in football’s transformation from an agrarian folk game into a modern industrial (and post-industrial) sport, how does Bromberger’s anthropological approach help us understand why atheists, as much as agnostics and the devoutly religious, can be seen praying at football matches?

Less existentially, what do we make of Giulianotti’s point that, “culturally, each football society may play according to the rules of association football, but the meaning of the game within each setting is heavily dependent on local conditions” (1999: 22)? One more thing to think about: if forms of ancient football were played by people of vastly different cultural backgrounds — from fisherfolk in Greenland and farmers in Mesoamerica to soldiers and courtiers in the ancient Mediterranean and dynastic China— then can the British (especially the English) rightfully claim to be the sole founders of the game?

In addition to this post, we were given assigned readings which informed the discussion of week.

Here is my full response:

Based on the articles for this week and readings done over time, a game involving a ball has been around for thousands of years. Early games were seen as training for hunting bye the Inuits (Nuttall 276), victory recreation by the Mesoamericans (Miller 23) and community building (Nuttall 275 and Giulianotti 2-3). As history moved into the 19th century, the game was elevated to sport (Giulianotti 4), from a leisure activity to a public event which required training and attracted bigger crowds.

England cannot claim to have invented football but what they can claim is to be the founders of the modern game and then they spread the game throughout the world in the same way the Christian apostles went out into all the world in the first century. Giulianotti in pages 6 through 10 briefly explains how the game was taken to all parts of the world, eventually becoming a global religion of sorts with sects and denominations at both club and country.

But what kind of religion it? Rather than most religions, which focus on following a given law and the actions of the disciples and on the promised hope of a better place after death, football can be whatever you want it to be. Bromberger gives his view on page 311 that the game is ritual representing the activities and cycles of everyday life.

Football holds out no promise of a radiant future. Instead, it embodies a vision of everyday life which is deep enough for us to adorn it with every attribute of a great ritual, (which he explains earlier). Sport follows a cycle reminiscent of life, season after season running parallel with the cycles of life.

As for the God of this religion, that allegiance depends on your values and social status and locale, as Bromberger examines what players fans support (297) and how teams are created (304-305).

The articles of Giulianotti and Bromberger focus on players, fans and coaches tapping into the superstitious nature of the game, regardless of spiritual values. I don’t know why practice x works, but it does and I continue to do it. Bromberger discusses the element of luck in the game and how merit does ensure victory (297), so some players do odd things in an attempt to tip the balance in their favor. And does God care who wins a game? I doubt and maybe the players do to, but just in case. . . .

Then there are players who make public displays trying to make their faith central to their expression of the game. Many players cross themselves when entering the field. Chicharito of Manchester United has a whole production at the center circle when he starts a match. Other players look and point to the sky when scoring. Giulianotti mentions that African teams and nations use witchcraft and sacrifice to gain an advantage (19-20).

One of the fascinating aspects of the game is how it changes from place to place. The economic, political and culture of the English took the game to all parts of the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and from there it gestated in each particular environment, producing teams and philosophies of varying beliefs and styles.

If you start with the English and their values of the collective, high energy and local lads, the game that evolved other parts of the world is far different. The South American game favors a slower pace, and the ability to make an opponent look silly is almost more important than the outcome. Also the impact of the game differs from place to place. In America, soccer is seen as a diversion, a niche sport while in Europe and South America, there is a life and death to matches.

In the end, the game of football is whatever you want it to be.  Recreation, community, obsession, you can choose.  At this point, the worldwide appeal and access allows fans to shape their interest in an infinite numbers of ways and that is the strength of its appeal.

  1. It’s great to see how you are using your personal blog to build on and expand on your contributions to the course blog.

    • thanks. i haven’t been posting but the class has gotten the juices flowing again. i find that i’m going beyond the word count parameters, so i trim for the class blog and then post my full thoughts on the personal blog. the class has been super informative and the reading selections have been great. looking forward to learning more about african soccer as well.

  2. Interesting information here regarding the background to the sport. I wonder how many other sports have evolved in this way–from a regular activity for survival to a leisure time activity (e.g. I am thinking about hunting leading to marksmanship). Of course, this is only possible with the rise of technology and the ability to have leisure time rather than spending most of our time and energy surviving.

    As for soccer as “religion,” it does seem to require a very loose definition mostly focusing on ritual observance. But, like many words, it has lost it’s original meaning and has become slang or shorthand for a much broader definition.

    • While learning about rugby many yrs ago at OSU, I learned that many games arose from the original ball games. Ball games in England eventually lead to the split into soccer and rugby, which splintered into Aussie rules. American football is pretty obvious. Then there is bball. I believe I read that this started as a way to train during the winter. Pretty interesting.

      As for the religious aspects, you can make all sorts of analogies and go too far as fans in Argentina follow the Church of Maradona.

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