Sunday, 4 April 2010

Football is the Opium of the People

Karl Marx famously remarked “Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes", which translates into "religion is the opium of the people." In 21st Century Britain, however, cannot it not be said that it is actually football that now has replaced religion as the opium of the masses. Football, like religion in past ages, now acts as the one of, if not the, most important things in many peoples lives and the two can be seen to have many similarities in the role they play in society.

It is unquestionable that football now plays are far more important role than religion in the lives of the masses. How many people can name the current Pope? How many people could tell you who the England Manager is?

Every weekend hundreds of thousands of fans across the country go to support their team at the great sporting arenas while outside the stadiums the great prophets of the club are honoured and remembered with statues. As Patrick Kaviani states in his blog, “Football is now a shiny money-making church. People worship at the altar of Old Trafford and wherever else, bowed (topless) before their footballing idols.” It is places like Wembley and not religious buildings that warrant huge funding and act as the focal points of our modern culture.

Beyond an enjoyment for football, supporting a football team also gives someone a sense of belonging, unity and the team is an icon for which the community can rally behind. Whole cities turn out to see a team return victorious displaying their latest relic to the people.

At the matches the fans, home and away, stand to sing their hymns in which they celebrate the heritage of their club and relive the famous moments from their history. Football matches allow football fans to be around like-minded people. It is the football stadium, not the church, mosque or synagogue, that now acts as the cornerstone of the society.

The bigger clubs, such as Manchester United or Real Madrid, carry with them world-wide support as fans from all corners of the planet go on a pilgrimage to their Mecca. Players such as Park Ji-Sung return to the native countries and are worshipped like living Gods.

Like religion, football has also been so intrinsically linked with violence. As with the wars of religion, such as the crusades, football fans are so attached to their team that clashes with opposing fans are inevitable, whether it be at home or abroad. Their passion for their club is such that people are willing to abuse opponent fans verbally and physically in a somewhat barbaric manner. People in Newcastle, for example, speak with a concerningly genuine hatred of people from Sunderland despite the fact the two are only ten miles apart and vice-versa. Such rivalries too often go beyond being merely 'sporting' and violence with people of clashing faiths are all too common.

When meeting people they will typically ask you which team you support, as if it has any bearing on your character or the chances of the two of you becoming friends, while whether or not you believe in a deity is irrelevant in modern society. When making these comparisons I am not attempting to present a social commentary. It is merely an observation about the importance of football in our lives today and how, as religion use to be, it is central to so many people around the world. This is only a very brief exploration of this idea and it is something that warrants far greater attention and thus it may well be something that I choose to come back to at a later date.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...


  1. I would love to get fully involved in the debate but I am way behind on work...

    That being said, the position of football holds is clearly a by-product of an increasingly secular society. I believe your assessment fits neatly into British culture as it stands, however, I wonder if the same can be said for Spain, Italy and other Latin countries...

  2. I agree, Pollard, with your perceptive analysis of the similarities of football and religion with only one qualification.

    Without wanting to downplay the eloquence of Marx's succinctly spun rhetoric, perhaps the phrase 'opium of the masses' goes a bit too far. A major difference with religion on Marx's day was that most of its practicioners knew no different, they had no access to disposable income and had little time for leisure. Combined with this, pre-20th century British society effectively frowned on non-believers or those of a different faith. As such, 'the masses' were offered with few alternatives to get their adrenaline rush of hope and desire. The Communist movement of Marx and co. is perhaps the only other example of a nineteenth century movement inspiring such 'religious' levels of support.

    With the advent of the 20th century and the increase in wages, coupled with a decrease in working hours, hobbies became more widespread throughout Britain as an alternative to religion. People were given a choice of what to do with their 'weekends', a novel creation in itself, and following a football team became a popular option. The reasons for this you have very well outlined above.

    Consequently, I would propose the suggestion that football, whilst being a cornerstone of British popular culture, can only be said to be the opium of a certain sector of society. Nevertheless, because of the varied motivations behind supporting a football team, that sector of society is almost wholly diverse and indiscriminate. Anyone can support a football team and it is a sport that is blind to race, gender or any other prejudice. In this respect, football does indeed have religious aspects.


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