And God said: Let there be football

Rosário in Argentina’s Santa Fe province is home to a religious sanctuary dissimilar to any you’ve entered before. There are still the familiar trappings — tiny figurines in praise of an idol, rosary beads ready to be rubbed together in praise of a deity that is no mere mortal.

Unlike other divine beings, however, this god’s lore was not derived from ancient text or oral history. His legend unfolded live in front of millions, in the throes of trembling stadiums.

The Iglesia Maradoniana was formed because standard fandom and adulation of the supreme Argentine was insufficient. Worshippers from across the country are encouraged to visit the Church of Maradona to praise the man who almost single-handedly dragged home the 1986 World Cup.

It’s the same tournament that gave birth to Maradona Easter. Every June 22 the cult celebrates the moment their deity rose alongside Peter Shilton and duly pumped the ball into the net with his fist — “the hand of God”.

October 30 brings a slightly more sober occasion, Maradona Christmas — a time to celebrate the birth of the one true lord and saviour.

These practices, though whimsical, are not outlandish in football’s frenzied ecosystem. In large swaths of our planet, the sport has permeated almost every aspect of human life.

Prior to the 2008 Euros, Swedish group Rednex released an unofficial anthem, Football Is Our Religion. The song is truly awful. The message, however, is accurate.

Fifa estimates that 3.2-billion people watched the 2014 Soccer World Cup. Christianity is believed to have about 2.3-billion followers. To suggest that the game exists solely within the confines of 90 minutes is an exercise in futility. People live and die by the game. By their team, by their nation. It’s an attitude that goes back long before the megarich world of club football today, before even the apostle Pele delivered himself unto the Brazilian people.

There is something mesmerising about the game, intangible and inexplicable, that has hypnotised entire civilisations. Pursuing the narratives of history makes this clear.

The genesis of football is difficult to track. Although we can pinpoint the formation of the modern rules we use, its true spirit germinated long before its guidelines were conceived.

One of the first ball games with a definitive structure and rules can be traced back as far as 1400  BCE to ancient Mesoamerica. Multiple societies in the region partook in a competition that held extreme importance for almost 3 000 years until the post-Columbian era. The rules differed between epochs and peoples but it is understood the game was played in a narrow arena with raised sides. Later editions featured vertical hoops — similar to goalposts — with the aim being to score with either (depending on the rules) the hip, foot or elbow. The modern version of the sport is known as ulama.

It is the manner in which this game was heralded that arguably distinguishes it as football’s true spiritual predecessor. The vessel that carried the word of God, if you will.

One Mayan myth in particular demonstrates just how much gravitas sporting activity was imbued with, and to what extent it contributed to laying the cultural foundations of cities and nations.

The abridged story goes something like this: Hun Hunahpu and his brother Vucub Hunahpu were playing the ball game when a few of lords from Xibalba — the underworld — took exception to the noise they were making. The two were lured into a rigged game, subjected to tricks and ultimately executed. Hun Hunahpu’s head was placed in a tree. When a daughter of a Xibalba lord walked past one day, she spoke to the head and it spat into her hand — impregnating her.

After fleeing the underworld, she gave birth to the Hero Twins — Hunahpu and Xbalanque. The pair would grow up to be masterful ball players and travelled to Xibalba to challenge the same lords responsible for Hun Hunahpu’s and Vucub Hunahpu’s deaths. Despite their victory and despite finding the bodies, they were unable to revive their father and uncle.

According to some versions of the story, they were instead sent up into the heavens, where Vucub Hunahpu became the moon and Hun Hunahpu the sun. “It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on this,” writes David Goldblatt, the author of The Ball Is Round. “These are not ancillary elements of Mesoamerican culture, a mere addendum to their central myths and narratives; they are at the core of their whole structure of belief. How can it be that a ball game provided the physical and symbolic fulcrum of an entire continental culture? We could ask a similar if secularised question of our own world.”

Indeed we can. It was only this year that former footballer of the year George Weah became president of Liberia. Those who summon glory on the pitch are immortalised off it.

Even those who would scoff at the idea of the elevation of players to deity status cannot deny that entire populations at the very least perceive them to be tools in the lord’s hand.

Almost two decades after the hand of God, Maradona gave his first candid account of the event. Despite the delay, a historian would argue that it still accurately mirrors the attitude of the average Argentine in 1986. It was payback, he said, for the events of the Falklands War in 1982.

“After the game we celebrated until we cried,” he recalled. “It felt like we had done justice, well maybe not justice but made good for the mothers who had lost sons in the Falklands.

“Whoever robs a thief gets a 100-year pardon.”

Is it really a surprise that a church was erected in the honour of a man who delivered an iron fist to perceived colonialism? Raucous chants of “Dieeeego” are the response to a player who screamed when they themselves had no voice.

“Many say: ‘Why? Why a religion? Why are you mocking God?’ ” says Church of Maradona cofounder Alejandro Veron in a 2013 VICE documentary — one of many on the institution. “But that’s not what we’re doing. It’s very logical. For Argentines, football is a religion. And every religion has a god. The god of football is Diego.”

The spirit of competition has followed human history. As a species we are seemingly preordained to embrace it. Its most glorious form has now come into being: modern football. We should consider ourselves blessed to have the ability to bear witness on our TV screens and in our stadiums every weekend.

Does God walk on the football pitch? No one can know but we will worship it regardless.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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