Football as a Vernacular Religion

Identity and Community: More Than a Club


iglesia maradoniana
Image from La Iglesia Maradoniana

In 1998 in Rosario, Argentina, La Iglesia Maradoniana (The Maradonian Church) was founded. Their website states that, ‘Our religion is football, and like all religions it must have a god’. (1) That god is Argentinian footballer, Diego Armando Maradona. The website continues to speak of the ‘miracles’ he performed, the prayers devoted to him and the ten commandments of the church. Maradona’s birthday is their ‘Christmas’ and their ‘Easter’ is 22nd June, the anniversary of his now infamous ‘hand of God’ goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter final. It is clear to see that La Iglesia Maradoniana is modelled on the structure of the Christian Church, with its prayers, commandments and the names of its festivals. Although this is an extreme example of football hero worship, they are not the first to call football a religion or to deify a player. The Portuguese player, Eusebio said of the Brazilian footballer, Pele, ‘to play like Pele is to play like God’ (2) and Pele himself is quoted as saying, ‘football is like a religion to me, I worship the ball and treat it like a god’. (3) In 2008 an SIRC research project in to football fans showed that 60% of those surveyed thought football to be like a religion to them. (4)

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From SIRC Football Passions report (2008)

When football is said to be a religion, the parallels seem to be drawn with Christianity, probably because those saying them are from countries with Christianity as their official religion. However, if  football is to be called a religion, it might be better defined as ‘folk religion’ or ‘vernacular religion’. In 1974 folklorist Don Yoder wrote that ‘folk religion’ was ‘the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion’. (5) Football as a religion seems to fit this definition well, but as another folklorist, Leonard Primiano,pointed out in 1995, calling people’s beliefs a ‘folk religion’ is to juxtapose them against ‘official religion’ and does them a disservice by doing so, the implication being that ‘official religion’ becomes the standard against which other religious beliefs are measured. Primiano preferred the term ‘vernacular religion’, or ‘religion as it is lived’, in other words, how human beings ‘encounter, understand, interpret and practice it’. (6) Primiano believed the focus of study should be on the verbal, behavioural and material expressions of religious belief, rather than the belief itself, and that folklorists with their focus on what people do, think and say, are well-placed to do this. (7) Simply put, the people and their behaviours become the focus of study. (8) With this in mind, when one starts to look at the behaviours of football fans, and focus on their praxis, one can start to see how football can be seen as vernacular religion. The religious leaders are replaced by players and managers, and their congregations are replaced by fans, a group of people with their own rituals, sacred spaces and objects of devotion.

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Map showing worldwide distribution of Manchester City Supporters Clubs

Just as most religions are made up of a community of people, football clubs ‘embody many of the collective symbols, identifications and processes of connectivity associated with community’. (9) Although traditionally thought of as geographic communities around the club’s ground, it is now acknowledged that football clubs can be chosen or inherited and thus communities are more about a sense of belonging than a geographical location. Football communities are perceived to bind people together and create social bonds, wherever they are in the world. (10)

kick it out
Football’s Kick It Out campaign
rainbow laces
Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces Campaign supported by the Premier League







Because of the prestigious status held by football clubs and the high regard afforded to players within them, clubs have more recently been encouraged to use this for good within their communities, for example in tackling racism, low educational achievement, anti-social behaviour and community cohesion. Issues traditionally taken on by churches within communities. (11) Equally, throughout history, churches of many religions gave support to newly arrived migrants in a community, offering practical help and a sense of belonging. (12) As Meri Kytö points out, in Turkey in the 1950s, this sense of belonging to a community to help ease loneliness among newly arrived migrant workers was offered by football clubs. (13) John Hughson backs this up with research among migrants in Sydney and their affiliations to local football communities. (14) Not only does membership of a football community offer a sense of belonging, but it can also, in some cases, offer a cultural identity, much like more traditional churches. Jordi Xifra argues that Barcelona FC offers a symbolic community that ‘constructs, upholds, and reproduces Catalan identity’, and he therefore calls it a ‘civil religion’. Indeed, FC Barcelona’s motto is “més que un club” (more than a club). (15)

Mes Que Un Club
“More than a club”, the motto of FC Barcelona 

Like religion, how people choose their football club is often though family inheritance, the SIRC report indicates that most people were born in to a family who support a club and are brought up to believe this is the best club to support.

Identification with and loyalty to a club very rarely changes from generation to generation: typically, children identify with the same club that their parents and grandparents support. (16)

Although, like religion, people may change their club during the course of their life, the general line is that a club is for life, that you support it through good times and bad times.  As the French footballer Eric Cantona is quoted as saying:

“You can change your wife, your politics, your religion. But never, never can you change your favourite football team.” (1)

If study of vernacular religion focuses on what people do, think and say then this is what needs to be explored in football fans. The next blog post will focus on the rituals of fans,  and the third post will focus on the material culture of football fandom.

1. La Iglesia Maradoniana
2. Footie Central
3. Kelly Grovier, ‘Is Football the Universal Religion?’ 13 July 2018
4. The Social Issues Research Centre, ‘Football Passions’,
5. Don Yoder, ‘Towards a definition of folk religion’, Western Folklore, vol. 33, no. 1, (1974), 2-15,
6. Leonard Norman Primiano, ‘Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife.’, Western Folklore, vol. 54, no. 1, (1995), 37–56,
7. Ulo Valk and Marion Bowman, ‘Introduction: Vernacular Religion, Generic Expressions and the Dynamics of Belief’, in Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, (Taylor and Francis, 2014), doi:10.4324/9781315728643
8. Marion Bowman. ‘Vernacular Religion and Nature: The ‘Bible of the Folk’ Tradition in Newfoundland.’, Folklore, vol. 114, no. 3, (2003), 285–295,
9. Adam Brown et al. ‘ENGLISH PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL AND ITS COMMUNITIES.’ International Review of Modern Sociology, vol. 32, no. 2, (2006), 159–179,
10. The Social Issues Research Centre, ‘Football Passions’,
11. The Church of England, Community Action Pages,
12. Charles Hirschman, ‘The Role of Religion in the Origins and Adaptation of Immigrant Groups in the United States’, The International Migration Review, vol. 38, no. 3, (2004), 1206–1233,
13. Meri Kytö, ‘We are the rebellious voice of the terraces, we are Çarşı’: constructing a football supporter group through sound, Soccer & Society, 12:1, (2011), 77-93, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2011.530474
14. Chris Hallinan, & John E. Hughson (Eds), The Containment of Soccer in Australia : Fencing Off the World Game,  2013
15. Jordi Xifra, ‘Soccer, civil religion, and public relations: Devotional–promotional communication and Barcelona Football Club’, Public Relations Review, vol 4, issue 2, (2008), 192-198, DOI
16. The Social Issues Research Centre, ‘Football Passions’, p. 34,
17. Simon Lloyd, ‘Top 10: Manchester United Legend Eric Cantona’s Greatest Quotes’,





Rituals: You’ll Never Walk Alone


thunder clap
The Icelandic fans’ ‘Thunder Clap’ ritual can be seen here.

The sociologist Émile Durkheim saw religion as a social experience, stating that it was a ‘unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things (…) which unite in one single moral community’. (1) According to Durkheim, it is religious rituals that provide a means for people to worship the same objects and thus to share experiences which help maintain societal bonds, it is the ritual that joins the individual to the community.(2) In the context of football, there are some rituals that seem to exist across every league and throughout different nations and these bind fans together as a club community.  

As Matthew Guschwan points out, in his study of Roma and Lazio fans in Italy, those in the stadium do not just go to watch, they go to participate in the event, they feel accountable for their team’s successes and failures. (3) It is little wonder that football supporters have often been referred to as the ‘twelfth man’, they believe that they have the power to influence the game through their presence in the stadium, both physically and aurally. (4) With this in mind, what supporters repeatedly do on match day, their match day rituals, are a large part of being a football fan: ‘what might otherwise be forgettable, every day actions become as meaningful and important to fans as, say, a church mass and generate powerful bonds’. (5) 

‘Sunday at the stadium is a ritual: we usually have lunch and then go to the stadium. We always meet some friends there in the same place, where we talk a bit about what happened during the week or on last Saturday’ (SIRC) (6)

Pre-match rituals often include meeting at the same pub or cafe, possibly walking the same route to the stadium, parking in the same spot or meeting friends in the same place (see graph 1 below). Some of these rituals are seen as tradition, “We always take the same route to the home games pub this isn’t a superstition, just a tradition”. Others, however, carry extra meaning as some pre-match rituals are performed by individuals in order to give luck to their team, “Meet at the same bowling club and all have a ‘half’ for good luck before” or “Always walk same route with my son (aged 10). We just changed route (for last two games) and lost both times”. (7)

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Results from online questionnaire of 216 British Football fans about their pre-match rituals, 2020 (7)


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Quotes from fieldwork survey of British football fans about their match day rituals (7)
Borussia Dortmund v RB Leipzig - Bundesliga
German Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund is famous for its “Yellow Wall” of fans

Once inside the stadium, the rituals continue and include flag waving, singing, chanting, physical gestures and banners. The wearing of club colours or the carrying of club scarves forms an important part of the bonding ritual, and the communal wearing of kit and scarves can form walls of colour within the stadium. However, ‘it is probable that it is in the act of chanting, singing (communicating) that much of the initial binding is done’. (8)

Meri Kytö states that communal singing by fans forms an ‘acoustic community’, (9) Tom Clark adds that it is ‘integral to constructing and (re)negotiating’ the collective identity of fans’ (10) and Pieter Schoonderwoerd states that they are creative expressions of identity and history. (11) In his study of fans of Scunthorpe Utd., Clark noted that there were no leaders for the singing, and that fans ‘implicitly understand the shared affective experience’. (12) However, in some areas of the world, it appears that fans do have a singing leader, a choir master of sorts. Kytö states that the Beşiktaş J.K. fans she studied in Turkey would meet in a town square before the match to practise singing with their leader. Beşiktaş fans are also well known for their pre-match ritual, the ‘drawing of the three’. The fans in the terrace begin by shouting “oooo”, followed by a “shhh” orchestrated by a fan who descends on to the pitch, at which point the crowd is silent for a second, before loudly counting to three in unison and then jumping around singing “Beşiktaş” as loudly as possible. (13)

The Beşiktaş ‘drawing of the three’ can be watched here 

Whether with singing leaders or without, before the advent of online fan forums, football chants and songs were a strong oral tradition, passed on from fan to fan or though families.  Martyn Percy and Rogan Taylor separate football songs and chants into anthems, emotive, declamatory, proclamations of success and those that are self-mocking or ironic. (14) The songs become a communication between fans and the team, with the crowd affirming their hopes for team success through their singing rituals. Percy and Taylor suggest that fan songs can be seen as similar to the participatory singing and actions seen in many contemporary Christian churches. Much like churches, stadiums are separate spaces from those of daily life, they are in a liminal zone where behaviours outside of the norm become acceptable. This may account for football songs being sung loudly and proudly despite the assumption that ‘the British find public singing embarrassing’. (15)

An example of an emotive club song is You’ll Never Walk Alone (Liverpool FC). Click here to hear it sung
An example of a club anthem is I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (West Ham FC). Click here to hear it sung.


An example of a declamatory chant can be heard here
An example of a proclamation of success chant can be heard here








Examples of self-mocking chants can be found here

While some football songs, such as anthems, may be established songs in their own right and have become attached to clubs through decades of being repeated by fans, other songs and chants can be made up on the spot in response to things that have happened during the match.  From Guschwann’s Roman fan study and my own questionnaire, it seems that most fans believe these songs originate from a particular section of the crowd or the stadium, in other words, the ‘hardcore’ fans, or most devout believers.

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Results from 216 British football fans questioned on where they believe singing in the stadium started from (7)

The shared experience of being with other fans in a particular space and carrying out weekly rituals are vital components for maintaining the bonds of football communities. Each week the beliefs and hopes of football club communities are re-affirmed through these actions, just as beliefs and hopes of communities are reaffirmed in more traditional religious settings.


1. Sabina Magliocco, ‘Religious Practice’ in A Companion to Folklore ed. by Regina F. Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem, (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2014) p. 140
2. Susan Birrell, ‘Sport as Ritual: Interpretations from Durkheim to Goffman’, Social Forces 60, no. 2 (1981): 354-76. doi:10.2307/2578440
3. Matthew Guschwan, ‘Performance in the stands’, Soccer & Society, 17:3, (2016), 290-316, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2015.1082758
4. The Social Issues Research Centre, ‘Football Passions’,
5. The Social Issues Research Centre, ‘Football Passions’,p. 5, 
6. The Social Issues Research Centre, ‘Football Passions’,p. 25, 
7. Jenny O’Sullivan, ‘The Folklore of Football’, Internal University of Hertfordshire study, (2020), Unpublished
8. Martyn Percy & Rogan Taylor, ‘Something for the weekend, sir? Leisure, ecstasy and identity in football and contemporary religion’, Leisure Studies, 16:1, (1997), 37-49, p.39
9. Meri Kytö, ‘We are the rebellious voice of the terraces, we are Çarşı’: constructing a football supporter group through sound, Soccer & Society, 12:1, (2011), 77-93, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2011.530474
10. Tom Clark, ”I’m Scunthorpe ’til I die’: Constructing and (Re)negotiating Identity through the Terrace Chant’, Soccer & Society, 7:4, (2006), 494-507, p. 499,
11. Pieter Schoonderwoerd, ‘Shall we sing a song for you?’: mediation, migration and identity in football chants and fandom, Soccer & Society, 12:1, (2011), 120-141, p. ,
12. Tom Clark, ”I’m Scunthorpe ’til I die’: Constructing and (Re)negotiating Identity through the Terrace Chant’, Soccer & Society, 7:4, (2006), 494-507, p. 499,
13. Meri Kytö, ‘We are the rebellious voice of the terraces, we are Çarşı’: constructing a football supporter group through sound, Soccer & Society, 12:1, (2011), 77-93, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2011.530474
14. Martyn Percy & Rogan Taylor, ‘Something for the weekend, sir? Leisure, ecstasy and identity in football and contemporary religion’, Leisure Studies, 16:1, (1997), 37-49, p.39
15. Pieter Schoonderwoerd, ‘Shall we sing a song for you?’: mediation, migration and identity in football chants and fandom, Soccer & Society, 12:1, (2011), 120-141, p. 131,





Material Culture: Walking on Memories


Just as many religions have their sacred spaces for worship, football fans have their team’s home ground. These can be old, slightly ramshackle wooden stands alongside a pitch or a huge, modern construction that becomes a landmark on the city skyline, just as cathedrals, mosques and temples have been for centuries.

Night View
Estadio Azteca, Mexico City

Whether large or small, basic or high-tech, the ground is the ‘centre of football fandom’. (1) It is the site of action for the footballers themselves and also where fans perform their  own rituals. Anthropologist Jessica Robinson states that the football stadium is a place of community and communality, much like a church is to its congregation. (2) Fans speak of the ‘hallowed ground’ of the pitch and of ‘pilgrimages’ to get there, they may want to touch a club sign for luck, enter by certain turnstiles, or sit in the same seat they have sat in for years. (3) Some players touch the ground as they run onto the pitch and maybe even cross themselves. Whatever the stadium rituals of both players and fans, their actions show that the site means something to them, beyond the concrete and metal it is made of, the very materiality of it is sacred to the people who meet there.

An example of the meaningfulness of the very stuff the stadium is made of was shown when Tottenham Hotspur left their old ground of White Hart Lane and built their new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.  The fabric of the much-loved old ground was made into aggregate for the floor of the new stadium, so that when fans enter the new sacred space they are ‘walking on memories’ because ‘the Lane is embedded in the very fabric of our new stadium’. (4) Equally, where the new stadium overlaps the old ground, a marker has been placed on the floor to indicate the old centre circle where the match would have kicked off from, a tangible link between the old stadium, and its communal memories, and the new ‘home’ for the fan community.

The flooring of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium made from aggregate from White Hart Lane, for more information, click here

Although football grounds vary greatly in capacity, facilities and size, one thing that unites them is that they will outwardly represent the club that plays there, the ground will act as a visual statement of club identity and therefore aid the communal rituals that take place there. Hitchin Town FC’s charmingly old-fashioned buildings and stands are painted in the club’s colours of yellow and green, the Tottenham Hotspur stadium is topped by the club’s emblem, a golden cockerel, and Liverpool FC’s gates have their anthem’s title, You’ll Never Walk Alone, incorporated in to them. Once inside, the display of identity continues, with coloured seats and club signs all around the ground.

Hitchin Town FC‘s painted buildings at their Top Field ground
Tottenham Hotspur‘s golden cockerel at their Tottenham Hotspur Stadium








The “Shankly Gates” at Liverpool FC‘s Anfield ground
Manchester United‘s seats in their Old Trafford stadium








If the visual aspects of the stadium helps the identity and communality of the club’s supporters, so do the clothes they wear or carry. The football scarf is the ‘most widely used symbol’ of football club affiliation in Europe. The scarf will always be in team colours and will often also include the name of the team and the team’s symbol. Sometimes, scarves are created for cup finals or other big matches and thus become a collector’s item to be long treasured. (5) The prevalence of the football scarf as a visual symbol of affiliation to a team is backed up by my own fieldwork where over half of respondents indicated that they wore a team scarf to the match. (6) When football tops, hats, jackets and other clothing in team colours are added in, the group of fans is closely bound in a visual manner, just as they are aurally bound by group singing. Responses about why they wore team colours in my fieldwork included, ‘It feels like a way of contributing to the atmosphere and show support for the players on the pitch. For away games, it’s more tribal and a way of identifying myself to other fans too’ and ‘I like to feel part of the community that supports our team’.

Huddersfield Town fans raise their scarves within the stadium
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Results from my fieldwork questionnaire of 216 British football fans asked the question,”What do you wear to show affiliation to your team? (6)
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Some responses from my fieldwork in response to a question on why fans wore team colours (6)

The colour of the clothing and/or the club logo are clearly important to fans as a means of identification with a community and also to show pride in their team. These are important objects in themselves but added layers of meaningfulness can be seen when the clothing is associated with an important victory or has been touched or signed by a player. Often, these are so special to the owner that they are not worn, but are proudly displayed in the home, often framed. The same importance may also be given to signed photographs or programmes, signed footballs, or anything that has in some way been touched or has association to a player. In this way, the objects act as icons, being displayed in the manner of a domestic shrine. The mass produced shirt transforms from an item of clothing into a precious relic.

Tottenham Hotspur fan, Emma Nottage, in her home from ‘We’ve Made a Shrine at Home
Liverpool FC fan, Pauline Pritchard, in her home from ‘We’ve Made a Shrine at Home









Even when less precious club items are displayed in the home, they illustrate a means for the fan to display their community identity to anyone entering their house. These displays may be temporary, such as for a cup final, much like putting up Christmas decorations, or be a permanent domestic shrine that marks their personal affiliation with the team, as well as a being a means to re-affirm their affiliation on a daily basis. (7)

brazen head
The Brazen Head pub in Glasgow is dedicated to Glasgow Celtic FC
The ‘blue’ side of The Orient pub in Speke, for fans of Everton FC










It is not just the home that can have objects that transform it into a sacred space.  With rising ticket costs in the higher leagues pushing some fans away from the stadium, the pub has become an alternative space for the ‘shared communal experience’ of watching a football match. (8) Some pubs have even sought to redesign their interior space for TVs to become ‘objects of worship’, theming themselves as a football pub to add layers of meaning and symbolism to the space. (9) Other pubs that are affiliated to certain teams bring the symbolism of the stadium in to their own space, such as shirts and scarves hung on the walls, signed photographs of players or club emblems. The material culture of fans within the stadium and the sacred space of the domestic shrine transfers easily to the communal space of the pub. Some of the other stadium rituals also move across, such as club colours being worn by fans, and the acoustic communal ritual of chanting and singing. The ‘call and response’ acoustics of the stadium come via televisions in to the pubs and are repeated by fans within. (10)

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Chart showing responses from 216 football fans asked the question, ‘Where would you wear your team colours?’, showing that clothing to show affiliation was often worn to the pub as well as the ground.

Whether in a pub, a stadium, or at home, football fans show their affiliation to their team, and therefore their football community through what they choose to wear, carry or display. This visual display adds to other fan rituals that are performed, such as singing and chanting. According to Durkheim’s theory, it is these shared experiences of team worship that bind the individual fan to their football community. Equally, there is plenty for the folklorist to study in the verbal, behavioural and material expressions of religious belief that Primiano thought important to the understanding of ‘vernacular religion’ when the rituals and material culture of football are investigated. Although football does not have the supernatural higher power to believe in as many religions do, it can still be seen as ‘a type of quasi-religion which fulfils powerful social-psychological needs’.(11) Equally, ‘there do appear to be genuine similarities in notions of support, community, needs being met, and the bonding and communities that are formed’. (11) 

1. Matthew Guschwan, ‘Performance in the stands’, Soccer & Society, 17:3, (2016), 290-316, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2015.1082758
2. Jessica S.R. Robinson, ‘The place of the stadium: English football beyond the fans’, Sport in Society, 13:6, (2010), 1012-1026, DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2010.491270
3. The Social Issues Research Centre, ‘Football Passions’,
4. ‘White Hart Lane Lives on in new stadium concourse’, video found on History of White Hart Lane
5. Matthew Guschwan, ‘Performance in the stands’, Soccer & Society, 17:3, (2016), 290-316, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2015.1082758
6. Jenny O’Sullivan, ‘The Folklore of Football’, Internal University of Hertfordshire study, (2020), Unpublished
7. B.H. FURTH, ‘Ethnic Neo-Pagan Altars and Ancestors in Texas: An Ethnoreligious Strategy to Reconfi gure European Ancestry and Whiteness’, Western Folklore, 76(3), (2017), 313-323
8. and 9. Kevin Dixon, ‘The football fan and the pub: an enduring relationship’, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, vol 49 (3/4), (2014), 382-399, DOI: 10/1177/1012690213501500
10. Meri Kytö, ‘We are the rebellious voice of the terraces, we are Çarşı’: constructing a football supporter group through sound, Soccer & Society, 12:1, (2011), 77-93, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2011.530474
11 & 12. Martyn Percy & Rogan Taylor, ‘Something for the weekend, sir? Leisure, ecstasy and identity in football and contemporary religion’, Leisure Studies, 16:1, (1997), 37-49, p.41 and p. 46