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The modern football fan - a 'sacred pilgrim'?

The modern football fan - a 'sacred pilgrim'?
Author: Sophie Maltitz
1 Commentries

Taking into account that many football fans regard their favourite club as a religion, this paper discusses the similarities / differences between fans who travel to stadiums and football museums and traditional religious pilgrims, which leads to the question if it is appropriate to call a modern football a 'sacred pilgrim'.

Keywords: football fans, Liverpool, pilgrimage

'Liverpool is my religion…Anfield is my church' is a group on a well-known social networking site with more than 900 members. It is a group dedicated to Liverpool Football Club (LFC) - one of the most popular football clubs in Great Britain and the rest of the football loving world. The club has fans all over the world and for some of them the relationship with the club is deep enough to call the club a religion of its own.

Their justifications are simple: in the eyes of many devotees Liverpool Football Club shares the same characteristics that most of the world's religions have. With Anfield Road - the stadium of the club - they have a place of worship. Their hymns are songs such as 'You'll never walk alone' or 'Fields of Anfield Road'. The 'Liver Bird' is their sacred symbol and the legends of the club - former and recent players and managers - are their chosen prophets. They even claim to have their own holy trinity in 'the players, the manager and the fans' (Lee, 2010).

Liverpool Football Club and the relationship many fans have with the club is used as an example in this paper and can surely be found in many other football clubs and among different types of sports such as ice-hockey or baseball in the USA. This phenomenon of viewing sports and specific clubs as a kind of religion has been researched by various authors such as Coles and Taylor (1975; 1990, cited in Davie, 1993, p. 85) who developed frameworks very similar to the fans' own explanations.

If one follows the given arguments and regards Liverpool Football Club (or any other team) as religion, does that mean that, as a consequence, one can call the fan who travels to the city to visit the stadium and the club's own museum a 'sacred pilgrim'?

Discussing that question requires a little research into the whole concept of 'pilgrimage'. Originally, the word pilgrimage was used to describe a long distance journey that was taken 'to a sacred place to undertake demonstrations of religious devotion' (Digance, 2006, p. 36). Based on that definition and the assumption that religious reasons were the main motivation to go on a pilgrimage, differences between pilgrims and 'normal' tourists were pointed out by researchers in this field. This view, however, has changed in the past, adapting to the fact that today many pilgrimages are made with motivations that are not exclusively religious. Therefore today the literature distinguishes between 'sacred pilgrimages' that are made to sacred objects and purely for religious reasons, and 'secular pilgrimages' that include journeys to 'spiritual festivals and sites, war memorials and graves, secular shrines, sporting activities, [etc]' (Collins-Kreiner, 2010, p. 157).

The modern sports and football fan who travels to visit sports stadiums, museums, halls of fame, etc - this is called nostalgia sport tourism - to pay his respect to the history of the club, to gaze at trophies and medals or to experience what it is like to be in the stadium, seems to fit perfectly into the category of a 'secular pilgrim'. But is it appropriate to call a football fan that travels as a 'nostalgia sport tourist' a 'sacred pilgrim', if one takes into account that he might regard his favourite club as his religion?

If one looks at the characteristics of football fans and traditional religious pilgrims there does not seem to be a big difference. It is likely that the number of female pilgrims is higher than the number of female football fans and that there are fewer pilgrims under the age of 25 than there are football fans of the same age group but in their behaviour as fans of either football or their religion can be very similar. Thorne and Bruner (2006) suggest that fans of all sorts invest a lot of time and effort in their interest and that they express their desire by attending events, communicating on the internet or collecting objects to do with the focal object. They also share a desire for social interaction and it can be argued that those characteristics can be transcribed on devotees of one of the world's major religions.

The major difference between a sacred pilgrimage and a football pilgrimage seems to be the journey itself, for most of the religious pilgrims are on the search for God and spirituality on the way to their destination as well as the sacred sight or site itself. Football fans who organize group trips to their favourite stadium and museum might argue that the experience of the journey is just as important for them as it is for traditional pilgrims but nevertheless: only a person who truly believes that football is a religion would grant a football fan the title of a sacred pilgrim.


Collins-Kreiner, N. (2010) The geography of pilgrimage and tourism: Transformations and implications for applied geography. Applied Geography, 30, p. 153-164.

Lee, J. (2010) Kopite: A Religion? [online]. Available from: http://www.empireofthekop.com/anfield/?p=11420 (Accessed: 24 April 2010).

Thorne, S. and Bruner, G. C. (2006) An exploratory investigation of the characteristics of consumer fanaticism. Qualitative Market Research, 9 (1), p. 51-73.

Let's Praise the Football God!
Author: Victoria Brieske
Sophie's conference paper caught my eye as it examines the same area of football fans on tour as I did in my conference paper. This piece of work shows an excellent content, a logical organisation of facts and an interesting and entertaining presentation. The whole paper seems to be brought precisely to the point and the main issue is clearly highlighted in this summary.

As Blackwell (2007, cited in Raj and Morpeth) states there is an increasing number of pilgrims to non-sacred places, such as e.g. Nelson Mandela's prison on Robben Island; the example of football pilgrims suits perfectly in this context. I completely agree with the characteristics you have mentioned which can be referred to secular pilgrims as well as football pilgrims. If I would refer back to the topic I have examined, one could say that the religious symbol the modern football pilgrim is wearing could be either a football shirt or a flag, such as religious people are wearing their typical symbols of their particular religion, e.g. a rosary or a headscarf. One difference in the characteristics I would like to mention is the one that, to my mind the football pilgrim shows his "religion" - his or her favourite football club - more obvious and offensive than religious pilgrims do wear their symbols.

Something I would like to recommend at this stage is that a more detailed explanation of the distinction between nostalgia sports tourism and pilgrimage would have been helpful, as you, unfortunately, only mentioned it one time and it did not become completely clear for me. One aspect I would like to build up a little bit further is the fact which you stated about the meaning of the journey to the "sacred place". Football, such as any other team sports, connects and brings people together. Festinger (1989) calls this "Comparison Theory" and states that people tend to compare themselves with other people who are equal or slightly better. They join groups in order to identify themselves as a part of a crowd rather than as an individual.

Zillman et al (1980) are mentioning advantages that result out of this socialising behaviour such as self-esteem, solidarity, companionship as well as advanced social prestige. The objectives religious pilgrims are aiming at when taking part in a pilgrimage are closely connected to the aims of sports pilgrims. It is all about self-confidence and being a part of a group in society, the group being either a fan club or a religion.

Taking everything into consideration it can be concluded that this summary of the conference paper offers a very good overview about the topic of pilgrimage tourism as well as widening the focus of examination through linking this topic to the entertaining context of football travellers. The reader can feel that you, Sophie, have a special connection to this football club what makes it even better to read and understand. Even though this topic still allows room for further research and investigation in the direction of social aspects, it must be said that this is a successful summary which definitely intrigues the reader to read the full conference paper.


Festinger, L., Schachter, S., Gazzaniga, M.S. (1989). Extending Psychological Frontiers: Selected Works of Leon Festinger. London: SAGE Publications.

Raj, R., Morpeth, N.D. (2007) Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage Festivals Management: An International Perspective. Wallingford: CABI International.

Zillman, D., Bryant, J., Sapolsky, N. (1989) Enjoyment from Sports Spectatorship. Hillsdale: Laurence Earlbaum.