When a soccer player becomes god: The lure of transactional religion

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A coffee bar in Naples, Italy, features an altar dedicated not to the Madonna but to Maradona. As in Diego Maradona, the retired soccer player.

The owner explains: “For us, Maradona is more than a
man. He’s a god. We Neapolitans love soccer and live for soccer. We can never
forget what he did for us.” The altar displays what is claimed to be a
strand of Maradona’s hair inside a rotating, transparent box.

Maradona led Napoli to its only two Italian league titles in
1987 and 1990, plus the 1989 UEFA Cup. Since Napoli had never won anything
significant before his arrival, he was treated as a savior. “We saw with
our own eyes the miracles he created,” the bar owner claims.

Down the street from the bar, you can find a figurine of Maradona for sale alongside figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. The city’s soccer stadium is revered as well. A former player notes, “In Naples, football is like a religion, and the Stadio San Paolo is the church. . . . Sometimes, football feels like it is the only thing that matters.”

The lure of transactional religion

One of Bob Dylan’s songs says, “You’re gonna have to
serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re
gonna have to serve somebody.”

We were created by God for relationship with him. As a
result, every culture known to history has worshiped something or someone. When
I lead study tours to Israel, we always stop at Megiddo and look out over the
valley of Armageddon. Then we note the nearby Canaanite altar that dates to
2,700 BC.

If we do not worship and serve the one true King, we will
worship and serve pretenders to his throne. It might be a star athlete, a
celebrity musician or actor, a politician, or a wealthy business leader.

But when we worship someone other than God, we’re really
worshiping ourselves.

Soccer fans in Napoli worship Maradona because doing so
causes them to remember when their team was great and…

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