Has football brought the re-enchantment of the globe? A look to Johan Huizinga’s classic on the question of whether sport is a religion.

"Pope Francis" greets fans at the 2014 World Cup (Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr)

“Pope Francis” greets fans at the 2014 World Cup (Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr)


We usually say that sports are “just a game.” But the famous Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said that football was more important than life or death. Like many, he understood that it was both a game and something transcendent, perhaps a religion. In our often-drab world, sport captivates us and fills our days with meaning. Watching soccer, then, might just give us a glimpse of both Homo Ludens (Playful Humanity) and Homo Religiosus (Religious Humanity).

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in his neglected classic Homo Ludensdescribed “play” as an essential aspect of culture, noting its “profoundly aesthetic quality,” which he linked to the irreducible category of “fun.” For him, “the play-factor lies at the heart of all ritual and religion.” To be human was to be playful – or to be a plaything of the gods.

Writing in 1938, Huizinga traced the decline of playfulness in a grimly utilitarian Europe. Had he lived past World War II, he might have been changed the story. Twenty-first century cultures play so much that sport has become a global business worth over $500 billion a year. And the most global of all sports is soccer. If Huizinga were alive today, he might appreciate how that game especially is playfully religious – and religiously playful.

Soccer enthralls its followers in several ways.

First, the beautiful game is full of beauty. Its aesthetic qualities delight both those who play and those who watch. We can appreciate a soft touch on the ball, a well-timed tackle, a stingy back line, a wide-open counter-attack, a crisp give-and-go in the midfield, a perfect cross, a dashing run into the box, a brilliant save off the goal line, or a twenty-yard, swerving volley sailing into the upper corner. For players or viewers, a stylish game is fun. It brings joy.

Second, the game freely invites participation and builds community. The game itself requires more collective teamwork than individual brilliance. Hundreds of millions of fans experience the ecstasy and agony in following a local team, a major European club, or a national team – through wins and losses, heartbreaks and shocking victories, season after season, tournament after tournament. Why do we keep rooting for a team even when it fails to win championships? Despite the heartbreaks, playing or watching the game is voluntary. As Huizinga puts it, play “is never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty. It is never a task. It is done at leisure, during ‘free time.’” But we choose to keep playing or keep rooting because we find community.

Rules, enforced by officials, are essential in constituting the game. Third, then, the game creates and embodies order. Just as the Ten Commandments undergird Jewish faith or shari’a law implements the practice of Islam, FIFA’s seventeen laws constitute the game as we know it. Without these rules, football would not exist. But communities of interpreters must discern how to apply the laws. As Sean Wilsey notes, the rules “are free to be reinterpreted at the discretion of a reasonable arbiter. What the ref says goes, no matter how flagrantly in violation of dogma his decisions may be.” Interpreting the sacred law texts in each performance, referees become our modern-day priests, gurus, imams, and rabbis. We may challenge the officials, but that’s because we know they hold the keys to the kingdom.

Fourth, the game divides the world into sacred and profane space, refracting profane issues through the sacred lens of the soccer pitch (field). Our game narratives borrow from dramas in the profane world. There is inequality: rich clubs vs. poor clubs. There is geopolitical power: national teams from industrialized countries vs. national teams from marginalized countries. There is prejudice: fans hurl racial and religious abuse at opposing team members from different backgrounds. There is hard work: the fittest teams often win. But there is also glory: individual players shine and teams pull off miraculous victories. We read these mundane issues into the holy space of the field of play, much like religious believers narrate the sacred from their perspective in time and space.

Fifth, soccer has its own liturgical rituals and calendar of seasons. Huizinga says that all play creates a “regularly recurring relaxation.” Consider, for instance, the pre-game ritual. We watch as the two teams gather in the tunnel, process as two lines into the sacred space, sing hymns, and pose for pictures. Captains join the officials for the coin toss, exchange banners, and wait for the whistle that starts the drama. Consider, too, the liturgical organization of time. Players and fans participate in games, tournaments, and seasons as ninety-minute, month-long, or months-long dramas, knowing full well that we will have to return to the real world of profane time after our participation in the drama. Like the Sabbath, Christmas, or Ramadan, the game enchants our days, weeks, and months.

Finally, the game invites unity while maintaining diversity. To quote Sean Wilsey again: “What is soccer if not everything that religion should be? [It is] universal yet particular.” The World Cup is closer to an ideal world, as Hamid Dabashi recently put it, with “a fair, just, and level playing field, where rich and poor nations, weak and powerful, famous and unknown, share a reasonable chance to take a swing at fate.” Dabashi continues,

The World Cup is a drama in which the actors, the spectacle, and the spectators – present and absent – around the globe are all, in one passing moment, part of fair, free, and common play. We become the world in one act of universal ritual that overwhelms and overshadows all the major world religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – put together. . . . Ask any kid from Palestine to Portugal, India to Ghana: the whole world knows the rules, performs the rituals, suffers the consequences or enjoys the results more readily than they fathom or fear any promise or admonition of heaven or hell in any soteriology. The names of top strikers like Lionel Messi (Argentina), Robin van Persie (Netherlands), or Luis Suarez (Uruguay), are known better than the saints of any religion.

Attracted to the beauty of this game, hundreds of millions of people freely participate in playing and watching it every year. The games themselves are orderly microcosms dividing the world into sacred and profane spaces that dramatically refract the real world. Rituals of games and seasons enchant our experience of time. Above all, the game elicits free participation in a playful, transnational community – a cathedral of admirers from many tribes, languages, and nations who might one day play together on greener fields.

Bill Shankly was right. Soccer is more important than life and death. It is more than a game. It is more than big business. It’s a playful religion and a religious form of play. It enchants us, enthralls us, fills our days with meaning, and transports us to a higher plane.


Scott Waalkes teaches political science at Malone University. He’s on Twitter at @Scott_Waalkes.