Soccer and the World Cup as the upcoming functional religion

Soccer may be just a game but some academics see it having the properties of a global religion:

A growing body of scholars see football playing an under-appreciated role as keeper of society’s well-being – providing a sense of identity with an almost religious role…”It provides you with an opportunity to side with your country without being violent to another. So in that way it does replace war,” said David Ranc, a French sociologist who specialises in group identity in football.

“It is a non-violent way of resolving conflict … and taking sides where there is not that much at stake.”…

“Identification with a sports team can provide people with an important identity prop, … a sense of belonging in what would otherwise be an isolated existence,” according to Eric Dunning, a sports sociologist with the University of Leicester…

“The fans of a football team form a community of believers that is characterised by distinctively religious forms of behaviour,” sports sociologist Gunter Gebauer of the Free University of Berlin told AFP…

Football allows people from different social and economic spheres to meet and bond around a common passion, experts said.

 

 

Paging all sociologists of sport – the World Cup is nearly underway. This is a classic “functional religion” argument (a la Durkheim). If you set aside the supernatural aspect of religion, it has several components: rituals (pomp of the World Cup every four years, going to or watching a game), building solidarity (based on a club or national team, gathering with other fans), what is sacred versus profane (the importance of the games versus other aspects of life, elevating certain players). Given the number of people who will be paying attention to the World Cup, this argument makes sense: even religions would have a hard time rallying this many people with such fervor for 32 days.

Soccer taking off in America?

Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy over at ESPN, writes in his latest column that he finally believes soccer is taking off in America (see Questions #19 and 20). This is a common debate, particularly at World Cup time: have Americans finally latched on to the “world’s game”?

Simmons develops several arguments, which I summarize here:

1. Many fans weren’t just excited about Landon Donovan scoring during injury time against Algeria – more understood what it meant.

2. The US performance in this World Cup brought Americans together and there are not too many other athletes or teams that can do this.

3. Moments like this make big impressions on young children who then carry their fervor into their adult life.

4. Media and technology now make it easier to access soccer.

In summary, Simmons writes:

Soccer is no longer taking off. It’s here. Those celebratory YouTube videos that started popping up in the 24 hours after Donovan’s goal…tapped into a collective American sports experience unlike anything since Lake Placid….Those clips choked me up. Those clips gave me goosebumps. Those clips made me think, “I forget this sometimes, but I’m glad I live in the United States of America.”

It is interesting that Simmons says this now. He says he knows what cynics would say: people have been saying this for years.

I think he is right in one sense: more Americans do now seem interested in soccer. TV ratings have been good, particularly for the US matches. ESPN has carried every game and its easy to find highlights and commentary on many outlets. Americans like rooting with each other for Americans – this is what happens in the Olympics in four-year cycles and that typically includes sports no one watches between Olympics. There are few moments that bring Americans together for a common purpose and sporting events like the World Cup are rare. Additionally, the US now has a reasonable soccer league, MLS, that has developed into a decent feeder league for First Division European leagues.

In another sense, Simmons is making a strange argument. What does it mean to say that “soccer is here”? Is it now a top-three American sport? Of course not. It may have already eclipsed hockey (check out the consistent broadcasts and ratings on Spanish-language TV) but it would need sustained interest, not just four year spurts, to come close to football, basketball, and baseball. The YouTube videos Simmons writes about of Americans celebrating Donovan’s goals (successfully edited together here) are positive; but they are just a small sample. In fact, most of these videos feature middle to upper class white males sitting in a bar when they should be at work. We are nowhere near national holiday status for big matches.

The whole discussion about whether “soccer is here” is tedious. America is a big country: we have lots of room for lots of sports. In reality, there are still just a few sporting events that draw national attention from the casual fan or even disinterested people. The Super Bowl is the best example while the NBA Finals, World Series, and Olympics lag behind.

Soccer doesn’t have to be as big as it is in other nations to be considered “here” but it does have to be a consistent draw in person and on television. Perhaps by the next World Cup, MLS will be thriving (increased attendance, more players headed to Europe) and the soccer generation who have filled youth leagues for decades will be older and more attentive. Perhaps not.

But if one is truly a fan of sports and competition, it’s hard not to get interested in the World Cup. In addition to national pride on the line, it features the world’s best players and a truly international cast.

Winning vs. a country’s culture

Brazilian coach Carlos Caetano Bledorn “Dunga” Verri has had a successful World Cup run thus far: four matches and four pretty easy wins. For many national coaches, this would lead to general praise from the media and fans.

But not in Brazil. Dunga has been playing with a more defensive-minded system, particularly compared to the attacking-with-flair Brazilian teams of past decades. A quick description of the battle Dunga has been fighting:

Then there were the fans, who almost always favor the spectacular and revel in the nation’s tradition of breathtaking open-field play.

Brazil has always been about offense, offense, offense. It has the deepest pool of talent in which to select a team. Its players pride themselves on creativity.

Even some of the  country’s former stars, such as Carlos Alberto, captain of Brazil’s 1970 team, have blasted Dunga:

“I am not confident in this group because our national team do not play Brazilian football…I’m talking about movement and use of the ball. We have good defenders, but the midfielders: if you ask Brazilian kids, who are our midfielders, they shrug their shoulders.”

So if Brazil wins a sixth World Cup title, what then? Will the country celebrate in the same way or will it be considered a less-than-great title? Sports fans can be an interesting lot, particularly when they are used to winning.