Soccer: the new Religion


In Mexico, soccer has grown in a similar way as it has for Italians. Soccer is a critical reflection of identity and is associated with Catholicism. Catholic rituals are often performed with a soccer connotation when an important match is approaching. In light of this, many traditional Catholic images have been connected to soccer themes. The most visible and startling unification of Church and sport has been the Holy Child of Miracles (the image to the left).

The Child of Miracles is a statue of Baby Jesus that has been dressed in a Mexican National soccer outfit. He is worshipped and prayed to so that the Mexican national team is victorious in its matches. It is revered and acknowledged that when Mexico wins baby Jesus helped provide an extra "kick to the Mexican team." It is one of the enduring images of the Catholic dimension found in the soccer culture.

According to one individual I interviewed, "It is a belief of ours. We ask our Lord for assistance in times of trouble and need. It is human nature. Although I would never say that soccer is as important as other things that can take place in our lives, I would still say that asking God for help when we need it is just a showing of our faith in his absolute power." For this individual, as in the case for many Mexicans, Catholicism is a vital part of life, and one must have faith in God's ability to maintain control over the uncertainty of soccer. In other words, faith allows for marginal play to take place in soccer. Marginal play is the concept that spectators of a sport or game are capable of manipulating the result or outcome by certain practices or rituals. In the case of the Holy Child of Miracles, praying and putting faith in Baby Jesus permits the Mexican fanatic to assist their favorite team in overcoming the opposition. Similar to Tanzania and its practice of juju, the ritual of prayer is utilized for a specific purpose and is directly performed with one fundamental function - to win. As another Mexican fan stated with a big grin, "Maybe, God will help us out. Either way, it is still an advantage to have God's favor heading into a match."

This notion of marginal play does not just apply to the effect that the audience has on the game being played. It also points to the opposing effect that it can have on the audience itself. Just like a religion, the experience of watching this beloved sport can become a fanatic's escape to another world, a different social arena altogether. One young man that I spoke to referred to soccer as the "medicine of life." According to him, "'fútbol is an escape from the problems that exist in life. People focus on just the game before them and ignore a little bit of the real world. Personally, I feel as though I am there [in the game]... Many times, the game feels so personal that I really view it as an extension of me. For us [Mexicans], it is a pride thing; we identify ourselves through our favorite teams and players." Through his voice, it became obvious that he was being very sincere with me. The passion was evident in his voice.  For him and several of the other individuals I interviewed, the social and self-identification factor found in the sport of soccer triggers an uncommon thrill and connection that motivates them and consumes them in the moment and how they perceive the rest of life in contrast to soccer. 

In this passion and blurring of soccer and religion, the element of "flow" becomes easily identifiable.  Flow is the notion of an optimal experience in which the individual is consumed in the moment and pursues a particular experience for its own enjoyment and to instill a sense of control over one's own consciousness. This idea was popularized by author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. In accordance with this author, the fans I interviewed enjoyed the game because of the internal control it allowed in their lives. Soccer, it seemed, permitted the individual to define what they wanted to experience and promoted a simple sense of joy, contrary to what real life offered them. In this manner, soccer not only becomes a part of religion; it is distinguishable as its own. The Child of Miracles, the individuals I interviewed, and the concepts of marginal play and "flow" all reveal the extent of the Mexican experience in soccer. For many individuals, soccer is a direction, a defining purpose, and a thrilling experience that puts their lives in their control. Through soccer, life is not as unclear or as dreadful. Soccer is an alternative to real life.