Shop windows are stuffed with orange items, complete neighbourhoods have been decorated and even the barrel organ in the street is playing an adapted repertoire with stadium songs. You just can’t avoid it – Euro 2008 madness has broken out. Simultaneously, so has the discussion about the role that football plays in the Netherlands. Why is the entire country so completely obsessed? Is football a new type of religion, as is regularly asserted? It’s not as simple as that, thinks Yme Kuiper, Professor (endowed chair) of Religious and Historical Anthropology at the University of Groningen. ‘Statements like that are much too simplistic. However, from a certain perspective on religion, you can discern certain similarities between football and religion.’
Football is an important phenomenon in our culture because it appeals to an enormous number of people, globally too. But is there more to it than a fascination for the sport itself? According to Kuiper you can recognize certain trends in how people experience football. We are currently living in a complex world with a great deal of individualization and daily work routines. But people also want to have fun, belong to something and experience tension. They want to identify with something collective, with a group, and in this case it is the nation. The European Championships, with the help of the media, are providing that collectiveness and the related feeling of belonging. Kuiper: ‘That’s something that could change very fast if the Netherlands doesn’t get past the first round.’
‘Identity is the magic word nowadays,’ according to Kuiper. ‘People are identifying with their football team. Thus it becomes your team, your star player and your battle that is being fought on the field. Football players are popular idols, sometimes even icons like Maradonna and Cruijff. The latter was once welcomed to Barcelona as El Salvador (the saviour) and Marco van Basten’s nickname in Milan was San Marco. Hmm, from there it’s not hard to make a link with the worship of saints within Christianity.’
Nevertheless, according to Kuiper it’s a rather superficial similarity. ‘Comparisons have been drawn between football and religion on a regular basis since the 1970s. Its simplicity makes it an attractive line of thought. You can also think of matters closely related to religion such as ritualization and sacralization. The football stadium is a temple and the zealots on the stands are completely lost in the game. They sing, scream, howl and together form a kind of tribe ranged against the opposition and their supporters. The most popular football hymn at the moment is “You’ll never walk alone”. The song comes originally from a musical, where it was actually sung at a funeral. So before you make the statement that “football is a religion” you should first think carefully about what you think religion is.’
If you define religion in a functionalistic way, then the similarities with the football mania are numerous, admits Kuiper. ‘You then assume that religion is a phenomenon that binds people together and is in the service of worship. This sort of need exists even in the most modern of societies. After all, people really want to belong to something.’ But if you define religion in a way that concentrates more on content, then you arrive at issues such as the interaction of believers with supernatural powers or forces, which exercise influence on them, or with guidelines on how to behave. ‘But what are these powers and forces when we are talking about football? And where are the behavioural guidelines? In short, a lot depends on the definition you choose. When you look at Africa you can see that football success is linked to magic and witchcraft and that football heroes in South America are real Jesus fans. In my eyes, though, that’s more a reflection of the religious traditions and movements there.’
Although football is clearly an important social phenomenon, in the Netherlands – certainly when compared with other European countries – there is little academic research into it. That’s remarkable, in Kuiper’s opinion. ‘Particularly because the Netherlands has always played a lot of football at a very high standard. Even books about Dutch contemporary history devote little or no attention to the country’s number one sport. The subject is barely taken seriously by university historians in particular. If research is conducted, then it’s usually into the sociological and economic aspects. That’s strange when our most famous historian, Johan Huizinga, owes a great deal of his fame to his study of Homo Ludens, in which sport plays an important role.’
Yme Kuiper studied sociology and cultural anthropology. In 1993 he was awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen for a thesis entitled Adel in Friesland 1780-1880. He has written about the biographies of football heroes and also about SC Heerenveen. His current projects include Religion and Biography as well as research on religious elite formation in the Netherlands and Europe in the Eighteenth and Twentieth centuries.
Prof. Y.B. (Yme) Kuiper
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