Ancient and modern

The true gods of football (hint: they don’t work for Fifa)

No matter how much the players are paid, it’s the spectators who exercise divine wrath

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

The World Cup has started, and the gods of football will be in their heaven for a whole month. Not the players, of course: the spectators.

Ancient gods, wielding absolute power, expected to have that power acknowledged. This was usually done by their adherents carrying out specific rituals at the right time and the right place. Do that, and the gods would smile favourably upon them, offering them personal benefits and even immortal glory in the eyes of the world. Fail, and that would be an affront, an insult to the gods’ dignity: their wrath would be unconditional.

So when, in the course of the Trojan war, Paris, seducer of Helen and cause of the war, was defeated in single combat by Helen’s husband Menelaus, the sex-goddess Aphrodite saved Paris from certain death, removed him from the battlefield and instructed Helen to make love to him. The by now disillusioned Helen told her to get lost: let Aphrodite marry Paris for all she cared. Aphrodite’s reply was chilling: do as you are told, or ‘I shall hate you as much as I now love you.’ The terrified Helen obeyed. Note that it was not just Helen who was on the line here: so too was Aphrodite. A god who commanded no respect or obedience was no god at all.

On this model it is clear who holds the power in the football stadium. The players may feel themselves to be gods, but they are in fact nothing but performing artisans, carrying out a ritual — defeating opponents. Do that, and the spectators will be pleased and celebrate their names down the generations. Failure, however, is a personal insult to every spectator’s sense of self-worth, an abuse of their judgment and support: how dare these ungrateful underlings refuse to come up with the right offering — a win? So the players and their priests (managers and directors) will deserve the impending onslaught of the divine wrath.

The fact that the players earn in a few days what most spectators earn in a year is neither here nor there. Gods have no interest in personal circumstances: what they require is obedience — and results.

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