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Why liberals are scared of football Our tribal support threatens their rational worldview

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 11: England football fans celebrate England's first goal during a Hyde Park screening of the FIFA 2018 World Cup semi-final match between Croatia and England on July 11, 2018 in London, United Kingdom.The winner of this evening's match will go on to play France in Sunday's World Cup final in Moscow. Up to 30,000 free tickets were available by ballot for the biggest London screening of a football match since 1996. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 11: England football fans celebrate England's first goal during a Hyde Park screening of the FIFA 2018 World Cup semi-final match between Croatia and England on July 11, 2018 in London, United Kingdom.The winner of this evening's match will go on to play France in Sunday's World Cup final in Moscow. Up to 30,000 free tickets were available by ballot for the biggest London screening of a football match since 1996. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)


June 11, 2021   5 mins

A friend of mine opened a play in Buenos Aries several years ago. Ten minutes into the opening night a slovenly, drunken, and dishevelled figure pushed his way into the darkened theatre, parked himself on the front row and started to abuse the actors on stage. Now my friend — Micky — is from Belfast and is no shrinking violet. Having had enough of this man’s rudeness, he strode down the aisle preparing to eject him from the theatre, whereupon the Argentinean assistant director physically restrained him. “Rugby tackled” was how Micky described it to me. Ashen faced, the assistant director pointed to the drunk and gave a one word explanation for his vigorous intervention: “Deus,” he whispered.

“Football isn’t a game, nor a sport: it’s a religion” as Maradona — for it was he — once explained, a man whose hand was once compared to that of the Almighty himself. Later Micky would be invited back to Maradona’s nightclub. “Deus!” the clubbers all cried, as if the messiah came among his people. If they had had palms, I expect they would have waved them. Christianity has 2.2 billion followers worldwide. Football has three billion.

Many labour under a fantasy about how our deepest commitments are formed. That fantasy is often described as “being rational” — and it assumes that there is, or should be, a line of logic that can be followed from shared first principles all the way through to the things we believe in and commit too. It’s not true, of course. Many of the things we commit to, we do so because they exist prior to a line of reasoning. Our love of country, our religious faith. And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to football.

How it came to be is lost to memory, but I remember even as a child having posters of my heroes on the bedroom wall: Peter Osgood, Peter Bonetti. And my children have had the same. Didier Drogba for my eldest. Christian Pulisic — “Captain America” — for another. My youngest child is just two. When I ask him what team he supports, he answers correctly.

Chelsea is owned by a Russian oligarch and former Putin confidant, Roman Abramovich. He may or may not have made his billions through dodgy dealings in the wild east of post-Soviet Russia. But — and here is the thing — I don’t really care. Some of the players I have lauded in the past may have been little better than thugs. I even have a top with John Terry’s name on the back. He may not have been the most morally commendable of chaps. But — I don’t really care. I am slightly ashamed to admit it, but there is something about my football commitments that precede even my moral ones. When Chelsea got itself involved with the ill-fated Super League idea, I tweeted out that if they went through with it, I would abandon them. But I suspect I wouldn’t have. Some commitments just run too deep.

This is what scares liberals about the holy trinity of football, faith and nation. They are tribal. And our continued pre-rational allegiance to such things threatens the whole liberal/Enlightenment idea that rationality must form the basis for our fundamental take on the things.

There are converts, of course. People who come to faith later in life, after having thought about it. But it’s hard road to travel. If you ever reach the stage where you ask yourself “what football team should I support?” — as if supporting a team were the potential outcome of some act of rational comparison — then you will probably never come to support one at all. Some things don’t exist as choices in this way. They are givens, things that the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “horizons of significance”.

These basic givens do have a moral purpose, of course, despite their obvious moral blind spots. They are the basis for a shared, common life. In football, faith and nation, I have a kind of solidarity with others — both friends and strangers, people who are like me, people who are not like me — that cannot be achieved by rational decision making alone. Walking past a stranger on the street, I see their Chelsea top and I nod in recognition. They know why and smile back. We have a bond.

The theological way of expressing this is that belonging precedes believing. Generally speaking, people don’t decide to believe in God and then come to church. They start coming to church where, after a while, they find the God stuff starts to make a different kind of sense. Suddenly the words carry a weight of meaning that they didn’t previously have. In time, the convert is not on the outside looking in, but on the inside looking out. This will infuriate Alice Roberts and her fellow rationalists. But their spiky dismissal of faith as irrational just bounces off most believers. You can’t be reasoned out of something you were never reasoned into. Just as I won’t be reasoned out of following Chelsea “over land and sea, and Leicester” as the song goes. And no, I can’t remember the historic rivalry (I think it was something in the Seventies) that singles out one small Midlands town for special mention.

Inevitably, of course, the problem with these basic expressions of solidarity is that having a sense of “us” is inevitably linked to a sense of “them”. And the relationship between us and them can often become antagonistic, violent even. That’s why football fans and religious believers can come to blows with each other. And these blows are often used to justify the liberal case for rational rather than pre-rational commitments. But rational solidarity is often a thin and bloodless connection, a theoretical bond without passion.

The antagonistic relationship between us and them, though, is often considerably overdrawn — sometimes deliberately. In the next few weeks, European nations will fly their flags, play their anthems, and compete with each other on the football field. I will cheer for England, but I know we probably won’t win. This is important. My commitment to the English team, like my commitment to the place of my birth, is not based on any sort of belief that we are better than others. Patriotism doesn’t have to be infused with a sense of superiority. There are better teams out there.

What rationalists don’t understand is that pre-rational believers or supporters, even if they have a different faith or a different team, have more in common with each other than they do with those who seek to distribute their commitments in the court of reason. Lord Glasman and I will go for a drink, I will have fun trash talking Spurs, and he will trash talk Chelsea, and we will have a thoroughly good time. We are more respectful of our different faiths, but we acknowledge our differences, and respect each other for having them. It’s an ecumenical matter, as Fr Ted put it.

Football is a world faith not because it seeks to eradicate all differences in some kind of meaningless Esperanto of togetherness, but precisely because it allows our differences to be celebrated. Here are the tribes of the world, little platoons of togetherness, all worshiping their different gods, but brought together in a festival of talent and beauty. The theological term for this is henotheism: the worship of the one true god — a god that wears blue, obviously — that does not deny the existence of other gods.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I applaud the fans who boo when England “take the knee”, and won’t be watching any of the games.

Last edited 2 years ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I go out of the room until the game actually kicks off, so I get a mini-protest and see the game. Hopefully, the boo-ers will continue.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I’m sure they will.
The liberals will not be allowed to take football away from the people they despise.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I am undecided whether to support Russia or Hungary

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

I wonder what Team the bitter rump of Remainers will support ?
Im guessing Germany ….

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Mike Doyle
MD
Mike Doyle
2 years ago

“Why Liberals are scared…” because fear of non-liberals is the sine qua non of today’s liberalism.

Simon Coulthard
Simon Coulthard
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Sure, and all people on the right do is complain about liberals

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

Do not kid yourself, football and sport in general is the means by which the liberal elite distract the people of this country from what they are doing. Look at how desperately it is pushed by the BBC. Opium of the people and all that

Simon Coulthard
Simon Coulthard
2 years ago

I’m pretty sure that’s a huge exaggeration

Paul Sorrenti
SS
Paul Sorrenti
2 years ago

some may consider themselves above these glorious, intoxicating, irrational tribal loyalties, but none are immune to the necessity of belonging and, like all who repress desires, it inevitably pops out, like a haemorrhoid born of a fibreless personality, in other, more damaging, even more irrational ways, like those who self-identify as woke. When trying to debate with them the virtues of one particular ethical stance over another, you may as well be arguing (correctly) that Harry Kane has made Didier Drogba seem like Mickey Quinn in comparison, but no matter how many graphs and statistics and facts and golden boots you thrust into their ‘reasonable’ faces, they will insist that Drogba is the greatest, or that it is electorally viable to reject the concept of a multi-nation state when challenging for the premiership of a multi-nation state

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

I suspect that liberals are jealous of the way that fans can form passionate bonds almost instantly with each other – as well as being able to share fleeting moments of the most extraordinary happiness.
I suspect it’s either jealousy, contempt – or more probably – both.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Simon Coulthard
Simon Coulthard
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Liberals are able to make bonds and be happy.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

deleted

Last edited 2 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
hayden eastwood
HE
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

They do form passionate bonds to their ideology which is one reason they can’t think

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Tragically it also means that there is no hope for homo sapiens-since it is tribalism per se, in its many forms, that is continuing to thwart much increase in practical wisdom……….just as well there is footy on saturday !

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

Deleted

Last edited 2 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
Peter Mott
Peter Mott
2 years ago

The failure to adequately acknowledge these sources of commitment and feeling, what Jon Haidt calls “moral foundations”, threatens to make our society ever more divided. But I am optimistic that bumbling dodgy Boris can rescue us.

Stephen Terry
Stephen Terry
2 years ago

Hard to know if Giles Fraser is being serious. Football is a debased form of religion, one which involves no beliefs or spirituality, an allegiance to colours no matter who is wearing them, and an addiction to the twin impostors of triumph and disaster.