Football: The National Faith

If we are to believe 2006 census data then 65% of Australians belong to religious denominations.

As a relatively uneducated and unqualified student, I certainly don’t have the authority to refute the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s esteemed data. But the simple fact is, 65% is absolute crap. In fact I would go as far as saying the true figure for religious Australians would be more along the lines of 90%.

For more than a century Australians have been flocking to weekend mass. These occasions have enabled followers to share fellowship with believers of common faith, sing songs of worship to their Gods, and place their hope in miracles and healing. And at half time, they throw their money away on hot chips and meat pies.

OK, so football technically doesn’t qualify as a religion. But it comes pretty darn close. So much so, that I’d be inclined to say that football is the closest thing most Australians have to belonging to a faith.

Not all Australians are accepting and understanding of religious individuals and their practices. There are still many that question how such people can regularly place religious commitments above social outings; how such people can unashamedly stand up for their beliefs; how such people can seemingly remodel their lives upon a single idea.

But football has the same effect. One only needs to take a city-bound on a Saturday afternoon to understand the hype surrounding Australia’s greatest creation. Inside the MCG the volume is turned up a few extra decibels. Cheer squads are swarmed with one-eyed bogans, while enthusiasts in the Olympic Stand momentarily take a break from their weeklong shell-hiding. Even the respected patrons of the MCC and the masses of media officials have only one thing on their minds.

During the aftermath talkback radio, internet forums and newspaper editorials go into overload. Beside the water cooler businessmen defend their allegiances. On overcast mornings fans proudly wear their scarf, regardless of the result. At libraries parents take time out to study football literature. Melbournians live, breath, laugh, cry, talk, argue, consume and produce football.

As both a diehard Demon and confirmed Christian I understand the passion invested in the spheres of both football and religion. Thankfully my dual role as a Satanist and evangelist hasn’t caused me many problems, although there have been occasions where the two interests have collided. During one memorable Sunday service, back in my glorious primary school days, my minister chastised me for wearing Demon socks. More recently, though, I’ve witnessed the two ideologies clash in unexpected ways.

According to Demon fans, president and ex-Brownlow medallist Jimmy Stynes is the messiah. He’s the chosen one that turns water into wine, the shepherd that looks after his wayward sheep, the anointed one that baptises the faithful. And now he’s physically suffering for the club.

In 2008 he took over the reigns of the dying MFC. With $5 million of debt on its back Melbourne was looking vulnerable; the prospect of merging with a fellow Victorian team was well and truly on the cards. Then, out of nowhere he managed to convert the masses. The debt rapidly evaporated as membership figures skyrocketed. Last week (5/8) the debt was completely demolished. A message of thanks appeared on the MCG scoreboard the next Sunday. I grinned, knowing that my $1 contribution had been put to good use.

Stynes’ tactics in recovering the money was truly amazing. Almost single-handedly the Irishman managed to convince the Melbourne populous that his football club was a ‘charity’ worth donating towards. I attended two official, albeit free, functions that aimed to reduce this debt. On my both occasions Stynes successfully squeezed the passion out of me, to the point where I almost gave in and reached into my pocket (But don’t read into my stinginess. If I wasn’t a student I would have certainly opened up my wallet a little wider). He achieved this by developing an extraordinary sense of community. Young and old, player and supporter, board member and barracker were united by a common goal. Keeping the Demons alive was everybody’s number one priority, and nobody was going to back down until that debt was well and truly history.

It was during these events that images of church came to mind. Every word spoken by the prophet Jimmy Stynes was treated with reverence. The regular parishioners, despite their familiarity with the message, listened intently. The zealous were brought to tears. The lifelong congregants renewed their vows. The younger disciples began to comprehend the gospel message their parents had inspired them to follow. Stynes’ message was one of salvation; the football club was destined to reward the faithful with a premiership. Along the road he conceded we would endure suffering. But he called us to rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us.1 I came close to bowing my head in prayer.

When Stynes’ sermon concluded buckets were handed around the crowd, for people to drop their weekly offerings. What followed was a linking of arms as we joined together for a thunderous rendition of the Melbourne theme song. I was surrounded by strangers, however our passion for the Red and Blue united us. Beside me stood tone-deaf defender Paul Wheatley, however the presence of a hero was not the thing that struck me. Rather I was preoccupied by the thought that this was the closest thing a secular community came to praise and worship. Except that we weren’t glorifying a God, we were glorifying a football team.

I love the Melbourne football club. There’s no point denying that. But football is not a religion. It’s not even a belief. It’s just vain hope. The Demons didn’t create me, the Demons didn’t die for me and I can hardly put my trust in the Demons to win a premiership for me. That football is the deity so many Melbournians put their faith in is an uncomfortable reality.

Don’t get me wrong; passion, community and loyalty are all wonderful virtues. But one can’t help but wonder whether this is the best basket to place all our eggs in. As Paul so fittingly warns us in 1 Timothy 4, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons”

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1 Romans 5:3-5