Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper”: FC Zurich mural in the Calvados sports bar.
Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper”: FC Zurich mural in the Calvados sports bar. by courtesy of Lia Wey

Faith, love, hope: sport and religion

How much religion can there be in sport? And has sport really become a substitute religion? A step back to Swiss wrestling festivals (Schwingfeste), jousting tournaments and monasteries.

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker is a sports historian, head of Swiss Sports History and co-director of the FCZ Museum.

This past summer, sports fans stepping inside the Sportbar Calvados in Zurich have been greeted by a huge fresco depicting FC Zurich’s 1st team. It’s a supper tableau in the Renaissance style, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 1497 painting. Head coach André Breitenreiter is portrayed as the Jesus character, and the championship-winning team are the Disciples. Is that no more problematic than a Maradona shrine in Naples that even features some strands of the hero’s hair, commemorating the football deity who played with the hand of God? Is it brash audacity, or is it high art, putting sport on a par with religion? The point is open to debate.
Maradona shrine in Naples.
Maradona shrine in Naples. Wikimedia
When it’s a matter of Muslim sportswomen wanting to compete in head coverings, or evangelical footballers pulling off their jerseys after a shot at goal and proclaiming their faith with a “Jesus Loves You” shirt they’ve been wearing underneath their team strip, associations and officials are quick to insist that sport and religion must remain separate. But there’s a deeper dimension to religion, sport and deification. A look back at the history of sport shows that the links between religion and sport used to be closer, or at any rate different. Medieval jousting tournaments, for example, were often held as part of the call to launch or join a crusade. It was, in effect, mobilising the sports-loving masses to wage war in God’s name. The objective of these physical activities was to become a successful, God-fearing soldier in the Holy War.
Jousting tournament. Painting by Zygmunt Ajdukiewicz, 1912.
Jousting tournament. Painting by Zygmunt Ajdukiewicz, 1912. Wikimedia
It’s also worth noting that some types of sport, such as the precursor of tennis, known as “Jeux de Paume”, were devised and played in French monasteries. This is no coincidence; the occupants of the monastery probably had more leisure time at their disposal than did the artisans and farmers, and were therefore able to devote themselves to sport. The clergy was thus not hostile to sport per se, but it hasn’t always been sports-friendly either. Things were different in the Old Confederation: traditional Schwingfest Swiss wrestling festivals, Steinstossen, the Swiss variant of the stone put, and other competitions among young men were a constant source of vexation for the church authorities. Firstly, because these events always entailed outbreaks of violence and the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol. And secondly, because playing sports and taking part in competitions on Sundays kept people away from church and supposedly heralded an impending decline in moral standards.
For a long time, the church saw competitions such as wrestling as indicative of a type of moral decay. 19th-century print.
For a long time, the church saw competitions such as wrestling as indicative of a type of moral decay. 19th-century print. Swiss National Museum
This negative attitude among the clergy continued well into the modern era. Modern sports such as cycling, football and rugby were frowned upon in ecclesiastical circles. In some circumstances, anyone who played football risked harsh sanctions from the Catholic clergy. In around 1920, for example, the football-playing young men of Sursee were even said to have been banned from receiving the sacrament during services. It was only with the emergence of the leisured society in the 20th century and shorter working hours after the General Strike that people were able to hold their sporting competitions on Saturdays, easing sports’ relationship with the Church. However, moving the sporting events to Saturday brought with it new problems associated with religion. In its early days, Jewish team SC Hakoah, founded in 1921-22, had to fight and ask that the football team not have to play its matches on Saturday (Shabbat). The Zurich Football Association agreed, which then in turn met with resistance from Catholic clubs claiming games shouldn’t be played on Sunday morning because it made it impossible to go to church.
Pennant of Zurich’s Hakoah sports club, 1923.
Pennant of Zurich’s Hakoah sports club, 1923. FCZ Museum
It becomes apparent once again that both the sporting Olympus and the sacred halls are strongly male-dominated – here in Switzerland, but also elsewhere. It’s usually male coaches who are talked about as messiahs, or male athletes as gods. Women in sport are less rapidly elevated to the status of deities. Martina Hingis has seldom been referred to as a tennis goddess. This attribute would more likely have been applied to Serena Williams. Of course, this imbalance also reflects the patriarchal view of a Christian idea of the afterlife, where there is a Mother Mary, but only a male Jesus and a God with a long beard. It is these historically determined nuances that show us, time and again, that sport and religion can never be fully separated.
Maradona’s hand goal at the 1986 World Cup was later referred to as the “hand of God”. YouTube
Sport is often seen as a substitute religion, both in research and by laypeople. There is a kernel of truth in this. When athletes are referred to these days as heroes, heroines or even gods, it’s not brash arrogance, but perhaps simply a substitute for religion. The shared pilgrimage to the stadium, the enclosed space, the fan chants, the worship or demonisation and the rituals before and after the game, the sublime, heightened emotional experience, and the sense of community are all elements that, both historically and in the present day, are deeply religious or spiritual. It’s no coincidence that people speak of the hallowed turf, the hand of God and temples of football. In this respect, for most people the new fresco in the football bar is probably merely a reflection of everyday life and fan culture, and not a piece of arrogant audacity.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at

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