I can’t imagine that this is a new observation, but according to Nigel Barber at The Human Beast,
Psychologists are closing in on the conclusion that sport has many of the same effects on spectators as religion does. Here is Daniel Wann , a leading sport psychologist at Murray State University, and his co-authors: “The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”
So, is sport a religion? The answer to that question could only be resolved, if at all, after some haggling over what one means by “sport” and “religion.” In any case, there is something compelling about the comparison. Myself, I’m inclined to think that there is something mystical and quasi-spiritual about baseball, but I can see how, especially this month, others might be more inclined to see adumbrations of the holy in World Cup Soccer (Football, Futbol, whatever). As it turns out, meditations on the spirituality of soccer abound.
At the TimesOnline, Matthew Syed explores the psychological benefits of belief for players in “The Players with God on Their Side.” He concludes,
… if Ali [the boxer] is praying to Allah and Edwards [a triple jumper] to Jehovah, and if these two men believe in contradictory theologies, and if both are reaping benefits, it must be the belief itself, not its truth, that matters. These insights explain, I think, at least in part, the pervasiveness of religion at this World Cup. It is less a matter of theology than psychology. Belief in God can give an athlete, a team, a crucial edge in the cauldron of competition, where success and failure are measured in fractions.
Preston Davis at Religion Dispatches explores “Soccer and the Sublime in the Shadow of Apartheid” eloquently reflecting on the themes of grace, incarnation, beauty, and justice. He soberly reflects on what the game can and cannot do, concluding that World Cup soccer,
like religion, possesses a beauty that humanizes. It does not whitewash tragedy but it does provide transcendence from it, and at its best meaning-making for it. It mysteriously wields us together and separates us all at once. We place our hopes in the efforts of 11 men on a pitch, competing against an opposing 11, and in the end we are thankful just to be a part of the experience.
If you’re interested in this sort of thing, each essay contains enough links to keep you busy for the better part of the morning.