A religion for our times
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Norway Now, spring 1998
Suppose our civilization were to disappear suddenly and completely, say, next week. Although no humans survived to interpret it, large numbers of artifacts and archives survived for intelligent life forms emerging in a distant future to interpret. These future archaeologists would be bound to conclude that although humanity seemed to have worshipped many gods and goddesses -- ranging from the Buddha to the Spice Girls -- one peculiar religious ritual seemed to have been nearly universal. It was reported on several pages every day in most of the newspapers, it was sponsored by whisky producers, computer companies and media conglomerates, and it took place regularly; not in mere churches or temples, but in open-air venues much larger than the Colosseum. The purpose of the ritual would presumably have been to illustrate the ultimate futility of life by sending out twenty-two athletic young men (or, more rarely, women) on a grass field to kick a leather ball back and forth until they were utterly exhausted.
Once every four years, this ritual attained a truly global character. In many parts of the world, the period around this climax seemed to have been a frenzied one, where most other activities and preoccupations were temporarily abandoned.
We are, as the readers cannot fail to have noticed, approaching the end of one such cycle these very days. Norway is among the twenty-four chosen countries, and as the country is these days moving towards a virtual standstill, the public sphere is slowly being filled to the brim with information about "our" footballers. To profess ignorance or disgust in this respect is, as the countdown brings us closer to the sacred kick-off, becoming more politically incorrect than refusing to celebrate the 17th of May, Constitution Day which, according to surveys, enjoys the support of over 90 per cent of the Norwegian population.
The national team's legendary manager, ex-Maoist Egil Olsen, is approached with a reverence formerly reserved for popes and presidents, and the youngsters whose single discriminating trait is their ability to kick a ball at the right moment in the right direction, are depicted as demiurges; the attentive public will at any given moment know everything about relevant topics such as their food habits, marital status, salary, recent performances and whether or not they have successfully recovered from minor injuries incurred in recent matches.
The priests of this highly successful religion are the sports journalists. While reporters on politics and culture are grateful to see their work in print at all, sports journalists are routinely provided with large colour illustrations, huge headlines, and unlimited opportunities to present all their banalities, their self-indulgent chattering, their uncensored emotional outbursts and their helpless clichés in prestigious spaces. It has nothing to do with topical priorities, quality or relevance to the country's well-being. The omnipresence of football cannot be understood lest we realise that this is religion. The question which needs to be answered for those of us who fail to see the unrivalled beauty and mystery embodied in twenty-two sweating blokes fighting over a ball on a grass field, consists in what exactly it is that this religion worships: what are its central tenets and values; what does it have to say about what? Hopefully, future archaeologists will provide an answer.
P.S. Under other circumstances, perhaps this intense attention would have been reserved for philosophical, literary and artistic types. Consider the news headlines in such a society: "Young Ph. D. student claims to have refuted Kant"; "New metaphors in recent collection of poetry, says publisher"; "Will marry my secretary, admits Professor Hansen"; "Johnsen finally RECOVERED: New novel better than last one". Perhaps, to think of it, it is just as well that intellectual pursuits are confined to narrow spaces in black-and-white.