It’s that time again, the time every four years when stores stock up on body paint; when a numbered shirt becomes second skin; when a flag becomes sacrament; when 23 names are etched into our hearts; when the motion of a ball becomes religion. The 2014 FIFA World Cup is upon us, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
By now, hundreds of thousands of soccer fans are about to embark on their pilgrimage to Brazil or have already landed in the country, ready to represent their countries and support their heroes. Another few billion will watch the world’s biggest sporting spectacle from their own home countries—repor-tedly from every territory on earth, even Antarctica.
The Religion Of Soccer
Soccer (or football, as it’s more commonly known), in particular the World Cup, does something even religion has failed to accomplish in the modern age: unify entire populations all over the world under a common passion. Even the most vicious of rivals, like the UK’s Liverpool and Manchester United, come together on common ground every four years, bound by the more broadly encompassing ties of national patriotism.
Soccer fans are by far the most passionate and most devoted of any sports fans I’ve personally come across, and all their fire and emotion rolls into full boil during the World Cup when their favourite players come to represent not just a city, but the entirety of their homeland as it faces off against the romantically impossible odds of prevailing against everyone else’s.
These fans are famous for what looks to a non-fan to be borderline insanity. These are people whose emotions bring them to do things that only make sense in the context of a soccer stadium.
They wear elephant hats, fake lion manes that cover entire heads like genetically-enhanced beards, watermelon helmets and horse-head masks. You’ll even find people wearing practically nothing at all, regardless of the weather. Everyone has their good luck charm, their traditions and their absurd superstitions that are intended to mystically help their team win.
Maybe dressing like a Roman soldier in full armour will help the Italians prevail. Maybe blasting a vuvuzela will distract the opposing goalie. Maybe stripping to your underwear will ignite a contagious emotional uplift that will propel your team to victory. No matter how illogical these intentions seem, they nevertheless make sense in the religion of soccer.
To some extent, it’s not actually about whether these things “work” or not. For the most part, I think we all—even the Japanese fan dressed as a samurai—know such superstition is more placebo than power, more psychological than certainty.
But the important thing here isn’t necessarily the direct relationship between fan and outcome, but between fan and country. The samurai fan’s outfit may be little more than a waste of hours of prep time, a travel hassle and an eyesore to those sitting behind him, but its ability to manifest the deep sense of pride felt by its wearer is undeniable.
Pride and Passions
Immense pride dwells at the very heart of the soccer fan, leading them to behave in strange ways and also experience powerful emotions.
However, those emotions don’t always lead to positive responses. And like other deeply held and strongly felt passions, sometimes this incredible fandom can even lead to violence. Like the case in Buenos Aires in 2011 in which over 2000 police officers had to be called in to thwart fan riots. Or the Columbian footballer who was gunned down after his own goal led to a one-score loss to the US in 1994.
Like religions, soccer can be known more for these fanatic followers (hence the term “fan”) than the less extreme devotees.
Soccer and Real Life
Such dangerous fanatics—though their actions are reprehensible, inexcusable and generally anomalous—still have lessons to teach us: imagine feeling such an immense sense of devotion to a single cause that you were driven undeniably toward such a profound response.
I’m not saying we should be driven to violence by our passions, but what if we could all channel such implacable emotions toward more beneficial ends?
Maybe soccer holds some keys to improving the way we behave, the way we spend our time and the way we relate to each other.
Those fiery World Cup fans show us what it is to believe unconditionally in something that can’t be seen, bought or even proven. They show us how to express with absolutely no regard for our own appearance, no mind for taboo, no notion of self-doubt or self-consciousness what we believe in wholeheartedly.
Why can’t we apply that sort of crazed outward joy to our real religious beliefs? Or even apply just a fraction of that devotion to our relationship with our spouse, our children, to the community around us, to any cause we can imagine?
It’s astounding that something as trite as a game can unite even the most divided nations in ways seemingly no other cause can, and it’s also beautiful. Nations crippled by political unrest forgetting whatever qualms they might have with their country, even if only for a month, as they let their love of home burn brighter than their disdain for its current state.
There’s plenty soccer can’t fix, but whatever you say about the sport and the World Cup, no matter how much or how little you care about them personally, there are lessons to learn from those who believe so passionately in their significance.
Did You Know?
- The first-ever World Cup was hosted by Uruguay in 1930.
- In 2001, Australia set the record for the largest margin of victory with a 31-0 win over American Samoa.
- Nearly one-half of the entire global population watched something of the 2010 World Cup.
- Only one player has been on three world champion squads: Pele, who helped Brazil win it all in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
- Called “The Battle of Nuremberg,” the 2006 Round 16 match between Portugal and the Netherlands saw 16 yellow cards and four red cards issued.
- 1-0 is the most common final score for a World Cup finals match.
- Brazil is the only nation to have appeared in all 19 World Cup finals tournaments (and 2014 makes 20).
- Europe and South America are the only continents to produce World Cup-winning teams