It was a terrible thing to witness, even second-hand on TV. As the cameras watched and waited – without of course ever focussing on the ongoing life and death struggle on the pitch – they panned around the scene at White Hart Lane. The faces said it all: of the other players, officials, but especially, those in the crowd. They told the story more eloquently than any commentator could.

Sudden death had entered the stadium in a way few could ever imagine it might. Many thought it was all over; well it wasn’t…now. As I write this, the news of Fabrice Muamba sounds good. He’s alive; he sees his family and he’s talking. It feels almost like a miracle. Those medics deserve a gold medal.

But the endless series of reactive interviews which followed Muamba’s heart attack on the pitch were considerably less inspiring. Of course it’s not easy convening a post-match chat (behind that weird curved bar at pitchside, with John Barnes and Kevin Keegan) after such an event and the subsequent abandonment of the game.

With so much air-time to fill, for half an hour or so we were served up, repeatedly, a feast of clichés which amounted to two thoughts: Football isn’t important compared to life-and-death (contra Bill Shankly’s aphorism), and fans and all the ‘football family’ come together at moments like this. How many times can you say this?

The repeated clichés are true of course. Who’d deny them? It doesn’t matter how many violent video games you play, witnessing real sudden death is an isolating and searing experience; thankfully extremely uncommon these days where we live on earth. Unlike for the thousands of generations who have gone before us, we in modern western democracies know little of public dying anymore. If we encounter it, of course we huddle together and pray to any god we believe in.

But history tells us the ‘football family’ stuff – if that includes the fans – just doesn’t wash; not for long anyway. It may be hard to confront right now, but the truth is that football makes its living by articulating rivalries and (especially) local & national mutual hatreds. Twas ever thus. What drove football’s spectacular rise to mass popularity in the late 19th century was the ‘derby match’ – the opportunity to heave the nasty stuff all over your nearest neighbour. We just love it.

When it comes to it, some of us will stop at nothing (at least verbally) to rile and insult the opposition. And we know players can do this with each other quite ruthlessly as well. Suffering and death is no object to insult; rather the contrary. It often inspires the very worst of it. Ask Man Utd fans about the songs referring to the Munich tragedy or Liverpool fans and Hillsborough (and groups from both clubs sing against each other).

A dead Chairman of a rival club was grist to the mill recently when Derby played Forest: ‘You’re going down with your Chairman’, sang some County fans after Nigel Doughty was found dead. A few years back, Forest fans themselves were at it after the Chelsea Director, Matthew Harding died in a helicopter crash. And reportedly Gary Speed’s suicide and Adeybayor’s dead Togolese team mates have been fair game recently too. What’s it all about?

Football isn’t the only ‘group’ arena where this tough stuff goes on. Religious believers have the worst track record and political ideologists run them close too. The articulation of hatred of ‘rivals’ is commonplace amongst the religious: the current Islam v Christianity derby matches are part of a long-running series, and we all know how bad they can get, home and away.

Why does humankind do this to each other? It may be because we’re human. There are some chunky thoughts to chew on in the latest book from the evolutionary psychologist, Jonathon Haidt. It’s sub-titled, ‘Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics’, but he could easily have added in, ‘and Sport’, as well.

He reports a great deal of experimental evidence that indicates that our moral judgement isn’t influenced much by concepts of right-or-wrong – but much more by our sense of ‘us and them’. It’s not how we see things, but where we see them from that counts most in our judgements. And there are some pretty sound, evolutionary reasons why this should be the case.

Even more provocatively, Haidt suggests that religion itself is “a team sport”. He writes:
“…trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about god is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of football by studying the movement of the ball.”

As someone who has frequently likened football to a religion (or at least an ‘urban cult’), it was refreshing to read someone putting the boot on the other foot.

It seems religion can be really like football.


Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.

The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Football.

Comments are closed.