Wednesday 05 August 2020

Football and religion

Published as ‘Praise them’ Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday 10 October 2007, p. 23.

The notion of football as a secular religion is an old one. Marx wrote about religion as the opium of the people, the consolation of the oppressed, and many have followed him in more recent times substituting sports of various kinds, including football and baseball, as fulfilling the role in our materialistic world. A few years ago a Deakin University colleague, Steve Alomes, wrote an article which pursued this notion, drawing a range of parallels and touching on the similarities and differences between sport and religion. It is not so long since Geelong folk referred half-jokingly to Gary Ablett, senior, as God, and many (hero) worshipped the brilliant and mercurial player, even though he was destined never to win a premiership for himself or his team. The man himself claimed to have found religion in the midst of his career and attributed some of his stellar performances to the influence of his beliefs. He was embarrassed and upset by any suggestion that he had supernatural powers or the label of deity which some attached to him.

Some thoughts about the connections between football and religion surfaced again in the aftermath of Geelong’s Grand Final victory last week, especially when Father Kevin Dillon conducted a service in St Mary’s Basilica wearing a Geelong football club badge on his vestments and my good friend John Harms wrote an article which appeared under the headline ‘Joy to the world as victory brings peace on earth’. In it he discusses the idea that profound relationships are born of shared suffering. The whole article is suffused with religious imagery as befits the son of a Lutheran minister.

Having just finished researching and writing the history of St Joseph’s College in Newtown, the starting point for the careers of a host of Geelong footballers, including Brownlow medallist, Jimmy Bartel, temporary Mayor of Geelong, Cameron Ling, and All-Australian full-back Matthew Scarlett from the current generation, I am intrigued to know whether their Catholic education had something to do with their success on the field. They had many predecessors, some of whom tasted Premiership victories, including Leo Turner and Bill McMaster, and others who played well but did not such as Barry Stoneham, Damian Bourke and Tim Darcy.

The thing which stands out for me is that these characters were team players first and foremost. Any tendency to lairising was knocked out of them early. I don’t mean they were dull and regimented. They could play with flair and skill and they knew where to find the footy. And they all showed exemplary courage, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness, often overcoming injuries to turn in effective performances for the team. But then I reflect, they were not alone in that if we look through this current Geelong team. The same features shone through the whole of the squad, so it would be pushing things too far to suggest that religion and a religious upbringing was a necessary condition for on-field success.

But what about the fans? It is easy to make facile comparisons between the walls of suburban rooms plastered with images of the football stars and religious iconography. The outpouring of joy, and not a little relief, sparked by the Grand Final success can be compared to a religious revivalist meeting in some ways. There can be little doubt that the euphoria of the occasion and its aftermath have taken some people’s minds off the daily struggle for existence for a while at least, as religion is expected to do. But beyond that we are talking about a sport and as the old Croatian saying goes, ‘Football is the single most important parallel thing in the world’, in other words it is the most important of the unimportant things in life.

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