Sing when you’re sinning

Football may be the new religion, but it faces the same challenges as the old

Sounding Board

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

We have a new national religion. No, not that one, God bless it with its shiny new George Cross. The ways in which that institution is supposed to have taken on the character and nature of Our State Church is not a new thought. Our new religion is of a very different nature. In truth, it’s not that new either, but not being a devotee, it only really struck me last month when I noticed that it had developed its own versicles and responses. They’re not very subtle, and I imagine they will develop with time, but the content of the exchange was clear:

V: It’s coming home.
R: It’s coming home.

When I heard them, they were said in subtly different tones, in this case the first was assertive and the second reassuring, but there are many variations. This Lesser Litany was heard across the nation over the last month, and has, of course, been put to music by our latter-day court composers Baddiel and Skinner.

There’s something cultic about the way these young players are lionised, then sacrificed

And this is not the only music dedicated to our new devotions. Many other anthems — high status (“Vindaloo”) and low (“Ten German Bombers”) — were being roared out in pubs and stadiums every time we met to celebrate our new mysteries. I couldn’t help but note that in the ancient halls erected to that more timeless deity (to which I have rather optimistically pledged my life), it was at that point forbidden for us to sing even a verse of “Bread of Heaven”, even quietly behind our masks. But this is really just the bitterness of old believers at the triumph of the new.

The special rights granted by a government eager to please the devotees of the Beautiful Game did bring to mind the old Privilege of Clergy, as did the arrival of that horde of modern clerisy, UEFA’s grandees and all the VIPs in their wake, permitted to ignore the rules of quarantine which are otherwise fiercely applied by the agents of the state. The mediæval church looks on with longing eyes.

Alongside the privileges of the administrative clergy, though, is the curious nature of our relationship with the players themselves. They remind me less of the priests of the Middle Ages than of the child sacrifices of the Incan religion: fattened up and treated as gods in good times, but slaughtered to appease the gods in bad.

There is something cultic about the way these young men are lionised, then turned on, and my heart could only go out to my illustrious and Godfearing (in the proper sense of the word) namesake Marcus Rashford after his treatment at the hands of his fans after that final match.

And Marcus Rashford brings us to another factor: the development of an ethical code. This code seems to be part of a wider reformation of manners and ethics which is going on in the West (for better or worse) but the code is clear: there are ritual actions (such as taking the knee) and vestments (such as rainbow armbands) which signify assent, and there are heretics and sinners whose failure to ascribe to this code justifies their exclusion from the temple — some for a season, and some forever.

But this new code is where our new state cult has to tread very carefully. Every religion comes up against claims of hypocrisy. It’s part of the deal when mediating ideals against human nature. All religions also come up against the age-old battle between their need for filthy lucre and their ethical code, and many fall very far short in the mediation of that conflict.

Hypocrisy damages what you hold dear

And so even shall soccer. Next year the prospect of financial reward (and the passion of the devoted fans) will see our idols kneeling, in a gesture which began as an act of solidarity with victims of American racism, themselves so often the descendants of slaves. Our footballers will be kneeling in stadia built by actual, real, modern day slaves, more than 6,000 of whom are thought to have died in the building work associated with the World Cup.

I also suspect they will not wear rainbow armbands, nor rainbow shoelaces, in a country where homosexual fans face three years in prison should they be caught having sex (and any Muslim fans face the death penalty for any extramarital sex with anyone of either sex).

This hypocrisy matters, as it matters when the church preaches against the gig economy but advertises for “gig economy priests” or sings the praises of immigration as its dioceses refuse to process visa applications for priests from overseas. Hypocrisy matters not just because it makes you look awful but because it damages the causes you hold dear.

As our national religion develops its creeds and its codes and its ethics, I will be interested to watch from the outside how it negotiates these rapids and whether the adoring worshipers stop to ask how much integrity its new clergy possess or whether its idols have feet of clay. I rather hope they will, because football as a beautiful game is rather charming; football as a moralising pseudo-religion is not.

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