Football and religious imagery are never very far from one another. Locked into a symbiotic relationship which appears to load sport with false sanctity in an increasingly secular age, it could be argued that football has become the modern translation of Karl Marx’s “opium of the masses”.
Elevated to a level of cultural significance far beyond that for which it was ever intended, football now encompasses a range of ideological and positions and has become infused with the essence of religion.
The great stadia are frequently referred to as the game’s “high churches”, fandom is a warped reflection of discipleship and certain players are bestowed with various pseudo-religious titles varying from God and Jesus through to Roberto Baggio’s famous Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail) moniker. It is these players and their shared characteristics that are of the greatest fascination to me in terms of football’s relationship to the theological.
Lionel Messi, Cesc Fàbregas and Robbie Fowler are just three players who have been linked with divinity by their fans and all share one thing in common – namely that they wear their supreme talent with a rare ease and humility. Messi and Fàbregas regularly seem almost devoid of ego, free of pretence and more than happy just to be themselves and detached from the hype and awe which surrounds them.
Fowler, whilst being prone to the occasional bout of rather unbecoming behaviour, was an extremely down to earth character who related to fans on a very personal level. When 500 Liverpool Dockers were fired for going on strike, Fowler made his support for men he considered to be from the same working class background as himself (Fowler was born in Toxteth) patently clear. In a 1997 Cup Winners’ Cup game against Braan, “God” celebrated his goal by lifting up his shirt to reveal the message ‘Support the 500 Sacked Dockers’. His bond with the fans was strengthened yet further, to unbreakable levels, and his quasi-religious significance became greater still.
There are, however, exceptions to the notion that these ‘messianic’ figures need to be quiet, grounded types who rarely revel in their own greatness. Diego Maradona (who has a church, Iglesia Maradoniana, of over 100,000 members devoted to him) and Eric Cantona – ‘mon dieu’ (my God) – both have arrogant streaks to their personalities but, through their egalitarian politics and near-spiritual link with their fans, are exempted from the harshly judgemental process that bring down many of their fellow professionals.
It is no coincidence that players perceived to be self-centred, no matter how talented, are rejected as footballing ‘deities’ by the working class core. Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, despite being respected for the talents they possess, are unlikely to achieve the popular beatification that it thrust upon others.
In short, those wrapped up in something of a messiah complex are the players least likely to become cult heroes or figures of spiritual significance amongst the fan base – there is no connection on any sort of supra-material level.
To be a footballing messiah, it would appear, you must be more than just talented, you must speak to the massed ranks of supporters on a wider cultural level that goes well beyond the remit of sport alone. You must be the provider of near-spiritual experience.