Saturday, January 28, 2012

Faith and football: An unfortunate pairing

The relationship between football support and religious belief represents a controversial chapter in the history of football. 

The Hungarian Mtk team of Budapest, the Dutch team Ajax and Tottenham in England, are all Jewish clubs par excellence. 

Their supporters wave flags donning the Star of David and encourage their favourite players with slogans like “joden” or “yid”. But in today’s era of ‘social networks’ and global communication, some infamous religious-diplomatic incidents have been occurring.

A spokesperson of the Israeli Centre of Information and Documentation (CIDI) referred to the hashtag on a message posted on a trending topic (words or topics that are tagged at a greater rate than other tags) on Twitter as ‘extremely distasteful’.
The hashtag #jodengaaneraan (rough translation: the Jews never had it) was used in connection to a football match due to take place in a week’s time, between Ajax Amsterdam and Feyenoord Rotterdam. 

Ajax is often referred to as Jewish, while any mention of Feyenoord players often includes hashtags such as #BommenopRotterdam (Bombs on Rotterdam) which are a clear reference to the bombing of the city during the Second World War. Some tweets include links to images of the match. 

The director general of CIDI, Ronny Naftaniel, says that the organization is trying to put a stop to hashtags but without success. “We weren’t able to contact Twitter,” he said. 

A trending topic is a word/topic often used or discussed on Twitter.
“Of course, it is about football and of course it is about supporters. But if you say this with your head held high, apparently with a certain amount of pride, then you are on the same level as the Nazis,” said Mr Naftaniel. 

The director general of CIDI refused to clarify whether the use of such words does in fact constitute a felony; ‘it’s definitely hurtful,” is all he said. CIDI is collaborating with the Dutch football association in order to prevent anti-Semitic slogans during football matches. Many people on Twitter condemn the hashtag. Previous tweets seemed to orchestrate the hashtag as a trending topic.
Jewish icons are widely used in Ajax merchandising. Tottenham’s ‘spurs’ stadium (‘White Hart Lane’ in North London, in the heart of the capital’s Jewish quarter), for example, also  sells bagels, the ring shaped bread role that is typical of Jewish baking.

Tottenham supporters call themselves the “Yid Army”. In Glasgow, Scotland, “the ‘Old Firm’ derby (the collective name for the two main football clubs) between the Protestant Rangers and the Catholic Celtic, turns football matches at Ibrox Park Stadium into religious derbies: Protestants versus Catholics, English versus Irish, loyalists versus Independentists, the Orange Order against the Fenians. 

Green and white are the colours of the Irish team, Celtic and blue is the colour of the Rangers who are loyal to the Crown and the Anglican faith. Rangers supporters are referred to as ‘Hun’ and are Protestant and pro-English. Celtic’s supporters live in Glasgow East and are referred to as ‘Tim’ (short for Timothy). 

Thanks to an old ethnic-religious law, only Protestants could play in the Rangers, and only Catholics in the Celtic team. Today this is no longer the case, but fines are still issued to Rangers players caught making the sign of the cross. 

In Turkey the Galatasaray, the country’s oldest football club is linked to the old Ottoman elite of the Lyceé Galatasaray.
Therefore the complex relationship between faith and football is truly an interreligious matter which involves all three main monotheistic faiths and even Buddhism. It is not just a team issue, but also a personal one. 

In 1999 Giampaolo Mattei, a journalist of the L’Osservatore Romano the Vatican newspaper, interviewed 74 managers and players, asking them about religion and then wrote a book entitled Grazie a Dio (Praise the Lord) published by Piemme.

The Brazilian national team has many ‘Athletes of Christ’, Evangelical Baptist players who read the Bible every day and fervently carry out their apostolates. The former AC Milan and Italian national team midfielder, Demetrio Albertini, is deeply Catholic and his brother is a parish priest in Barbaiana, in the Northern Italian municipality of Lainate. 

Another midfielder, former Roma player Damiano Tommasi was a conscientious objector and worked with Caritas, he nearly entered into priesthood (but then met his wife Chiara.

“The Lord calls whoever he wants to”). George Weah, from a Christian family embraced Islam and said: “I pray regularly, 5 times a day, even in the street or if I am playing. I understood that Islam was the right religion for me and all the black people in the world.” 

Roberto Baggio says he found the strength to overcome trials and obstacles thanks to Buddha. ‘After the accident I had, many doctors told me my career was over. Buddhism helped me achieve what I had been hoping for.” 

The manager trainer of the very Catholic Irish national team, Giovanni Trapattoni was himself well “trained” in faith matters from an early age thanks to his home and his local church in Cusano Milanino “I come from a very Catholic family and my sister is a nun, I pray every day in the morning and in the evening and I always encourage my players to go to mass. I think that by attending mass a team finds better cohesion and serenity. You might lose a match, but you never lose sight of what really counts.” 

On the other hand, Didier Deschamps, former Juventus midfielder and trainer and current Marseille Football club manager, lost his faith after the death of his brother in an air-crash: “If God existed, he would not allow such injustice. I thank my parents for a strict and rigorous education, a deep Catholic education. I am sorry I lost my faith in God, I am sorry for them as well as for me. I am an honest person. Honesty and gratitude I believe are the most important values.”