Argentina’s Extreme Spirit At FIFA: Why We Play Football

As traditional religion loses significance, a sport emerges as an alternative.

The scene is Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. The Obelisco, a narrow, stone monument, marks the heart of the city as a gleaming needle pinning the sky. Around it, four million people—a quarter of the city’s population—gather to commemorate a historic moment. The crowd sweeps them up, fireworks showering above them and fellow Argentines cheering from all directions. In comparison, around two and a half million people make the pilgrimage to Mecca every year.

In a land where Diego Maradona, the timeless football champion who passed away in 2020, is worshipped as a god, the football fever reaches almost spiritual levels. “Rituals” that are said to lead to fortunate outcomes are fondly called cabala; events that are suspected to negatively affect games are mufa (like the former president Mauricio Macri visiting Qatar for the World Cup.) The country holds its breath as the national team plays any match; stores close and the streets empty out, the Albiceleste (white and blue) jerseys forming entire seas inside bars and cafes. When a player performs a goal, the seas erupt.

Buenos Aires Football Celebration
Buenos Aires Football Celebration. FACEBOOK @Bleacher Report Football

In modern days, sport isn’t mere play. In fact, for some decades, sports has been compared to religion by many philosophers. Eruteyan J. Jeroh traces back the relationship to primitive societies, in which athletic activities acted as rituals. Physical ability was directly connected to metaphysical abilities like influencing fate and natural forces. The Olympic Games, now the world’s biggest sport competition, began as a tribute to Zeus. Many sculptures of Greek gods were chiseled to represent the highest ideals of anthropomorphic physicality. Jeroh also points to games played in New Mexico and dances in Nigeria as historical forms of worship, suggesting that physical activity and religion are more interconnected than we think.

In 1969, Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark proposed the five dimensions of religious commitment that would emerge as a major reference within the philosophy of religion. The first dimension, faith beyond rationality, is best understood as a leap of faith. Fans of sports teams often consistently support a team that is performing badly and may even bet money on miracles. Anne Eyre likens this to a religious devotee’s unwavering conviction that their religion is the one true faith despite gaps in logic or evidence. The second dimension, religious practice, is where their faith guides their rituals. Visiting the stadium, turning on the TV for a match, and donning football jerseys are all part of the practice.

Football Fans
Football Fans. Photo by Ellen Kerbey on Unsplash

The third dimension, subjective experience, is the emotional counterpart that substitutes much of the gap in rationality that was mentioned earlier. It is common for followers of religion to base their faith in events that they experienced personally, such as instances of transcendence. Emile Durkheim, a prominent French sociologist from the turn of the twentieth century, points at the human crowd as a possible source of transcendental experience. In a much-anticipated, sold-out sports event, individuals lose their sense of self and enter a higher-order consciousness. This awareness of something “much bigger and beyond oneself” is the sacred grain that constitutes sport.

The fourth dimension, knowledge, has to do with the kind of information that one consumes as a devotee. This closely transitions into the fifth dimension: consequences, which concerns itself with how one uses their information to communicate with others and consolidate their position within the community. For a follower of religion, this could mean that they not only read the Bible in their free time, but actively go to church, discuss the Bible with their family members, or promote their religion to others. In a similar way, a committed sports fan would not only accumulate their knowledge of the sports team, but activate it: they might join a fan club, discuss the team’s strengths and weaknesses with other fans, or go support a game at the stadium. Broadly, the fifth dimension translates the previous four dimensions into everyday practice.

In a rapidly secularizing world, the closest thing we have to an active and pervasive religion is football—a specific, modern derivative of religion, Christian Bromberger argues. In many ways, football is a microcosm of a free democracy, in which players are governed only by merit and a generous sprinkle of chance; many present-day champions have risen from the slums into stardom through sheer hard work. Fans chant, bet money, and purchase exclusive jerseys—participating in a “noisy affirmation of collective identity” in which spectators smoothly place themselves on the one and only playing field.

Historically, religion was in charge of keeping the community together, a role that football has not found difficult to take up. Not only does it bring together fans of the same team, but football pervades among society as a whole, appearing in the very first conversations between the furthest strangers. In this way, Stephen Alomes points at football’s status as a “weather” subject.

FIFA Argentina Victory
FIFA Argentina Victory. FACEBOOK @Argentina Football Team

Nonetheless, comparing sports to religion is an outrageous idea to some. One common criticism is that while religion encourages a solemn reflection on the world’s many sufferings, sports deters and distracts from them. To this, Jesús Ilundáin argues, the transcendental, subjective experience of participating in football is the very solemnity that these critics say it lacks. Loud cheering, boisterous celebrations, and temporarily suspending economies can seem immature. Yet, all these point to the people’s pursuit of “the feeling of being part and parcel of something larger than themselves,” a pursuit that makes sports especially akin to religious devotion.

Argentina’s victory in the 2022 World Cup was symbolic in a way that couldn’t be captured by their individual players, penalty kicks, and Messi’s stunning goals. The ecstatic people of Argentina, forming storms thick enough to cancel the players’ parade midway, would show us that football is more than the sum of its parts.

For Argentines, football is a gift, every victory a glimmer of a great, lurking potential. “We’re always in the news for bad stuff,” says an Argentine. “Politics and the economy aren’t going in the direction you might want, and it’s been a long time since there’s been a genuine reason to celebrate.” The God of football extends a hand to Argentines in their infamous hard times. The ball rolls across the goal line and toward hope.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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