What Would Salah Do? Or: Zen Fandom: Spectator Sports As Spiritual Practice

Why This, Why Now

On Wednesday night, there was a football game.

But, if you live in the UK, you knew that already.

You’re either:

For years, I’ve shied away from writing this piece because I thought it would be numbingly boring to people who aren’t sports fans.

But I’ve come to realise that, in the non-words of semi-mythical Liverpool FC ur-manager Bill Shankly: ‘It’s more important than that.’

Both sides of the 48 percent divide got in touch with me about the match on Wednesday — one half to help manage the behaviour of fans who put football before family and the other half to help manage the pit of despair that an adverse result had thrown them into.

As my Arsenal-supporting co-thinker (👋) put it:

[I] definitely need to take a leaf out of the David Charles book of How to Be a Zen Football Supporter

So here we are.

I think today’s story has something for anyone who has ever found themselves emotionally over-invested in the lives of strangers — or for those seeking to understand and support those of us who do find ourselves getting into mental muddles over events completely out of our control.

What Bill Shankly Actually Said

Bill Shankly was the charismatic manager and coach of Liverpool Football Club between 1959 and 1974.

Shankly was the man who ‘created the idea of Liverpool’ by binding players and supporters together in a socialist pact where everyone works for each other and everyone shares in the rewards.

Under Shankly, Liverpool fans adopted their pop-song anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone and invented the concept of crowd participation through song, something fans all over the world do today.

In the 60s, 70s and 80s, this unity between players, club and fans turned Liverpool FC into a titan of the sport: a position they still hold sixty years after Shankly arrived.

There’s an enduring myth that Bill Shankly once declared that football is more important than life and death.

He never said that.

Shankly said only that the game had been more important than life and death to him — and, speaking months before his death, he confessed that he regretted his decision to put football above the suffering of his own family.

And, the thing is, Bill Shankly’s results as Liverpool manager weren’t even that good.

Don’t get me wrong: he was successful, but his Liverpool sides didn’t dominate in the manner of later Liverpool managers in the 1970-80s, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 1990-2000s or Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City today.

Shankly won three first division league titles in his fifteen years, his win percentage ranks him eighth out of all Liverpool managers and his team’s average points-per-game would only be good enough for fifth place in today’s Premier League.

Yet there is no one more important at the club, even today.

I tell Shankly’s story to help put two things together:

  1. Putting football over family is always a bad decision — not only for fans, but also for those managers and players who couldn’t be more integral to the game.
  2. Results, especially trophies, are only a small part of how even the greatest are remembered.

So how did Shankly end up in a position where football, for him, was more important than life and death?

And how did the rest of us get to a place where we’re nodding along with the mythologised version of Shankly’s Regret:

Some people say that football is a matter of life and death. I say they’re wrong. It’s more important than that.

Sublimated Passions, Escapist Self-Regulation

Sport, especially, in the UK, football, is often seen as a ‘safe’ social container for the sublimation of passions whose expression is otherwise unacceptable.

The story goes that sports give supporters the cathartic opportunity to express tribal aggression, screaming joy and tearful heartbreak in public, and — taboo of British taboos — share those emotions with strangers.

We could say that watching a football match is an intense ninety minute practice of emotional self-regulation.

  • Our team scores a goal. Can we enjoy the moment, the dopamine, the pleasure, the release, the aesthetic experience, without becoming dependent on more?
  • But hold on — the video assistant referee is checking the goal for a very tight offside. Can we ride our anxiety into excitement or will we let it take over and become a jibbering mess?
  • After a five minute wait, our team’s goal is disallowed. Can we absorb the blow without being floored, can we recognise that the call was tight and that the aesthetics of the non-goal still stand as a moment to enjoy nonetheless?
  • Our team concedes a goal, despite what we thought was a blatent foul in the build-up. What will we do with all this anger, the burning sense of injustice, that’s suddenly arrived?
  • Despite all their efforts and energy, our team loses the match. The referee blows their whistle and we’re hit by a taunting, humiliating, triumphant roar from the opposing team’s fans. Can we nevertheless say ‘thanks for a good game, well played’, comfortable in the knowledge that, although this may be disappointing for the players, this isn’t an important life event for us, only practice for those times when, despite all our efforts and energy, things, perhaps genuinely important things, don’t go our way?

Most of the time, unfortunately, supporters (including myself) don’t look at it like this.

We don’t realise that our over-investment in sports is the perfect training ground for our real life emotional triggers and subsequent behaviour.

A Word On Catharsis

I believe that sports offer one significant advantage over other art forms when it comes to the psychological benefits of catharsis, the emotional release that comes with the satisfying release of emotion.

You see, generally speaking, the storytelling arts — novels, film and theatre — do the catharsis for you.

When you go and watch a play, you’re taken on an Aristotelian journey of conflict and resolution and, assuming the author has done their job well, even when the story is tragic you leave the theatre feeling in some way torn to pieces and made whole again.

This is where sports have the edge. They’re not a pre-designed cathartic story. There is no author.

They’re actually more like a slot machine or Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.

The conflict is there, but there’s no guarantee of a satisfying resolution — exactly like life. It’s the perfect training ground.

But, far from helping us self-regulate outside the game, our failure to recognise the spiritual practice of spectator sports can mean that, when results don’t go our way, we try to soothe ourselves with yet more ineffective escapist forms of emotional self-regulation: binge drinking, comfort eating, black moods and (let’s not forget) domestic violence, which peaks around football matches.

None of these tactics work, of course, because we are seeking control over something beyond our control. We are addicted to the slot machine.

If anything, approaching sport in this typical and fanatical way is actually damaging to our ability to self-regulate our emotions in real life.

After a bad defeat, only the footballers get the chance to put it right. Spectators don’t.

We either practice Zen Fandom or we lash out.

So where next?

The Dead End Of Giving Up

It’s worth saying that giving up is an option.

It must be liberating to drop that emotional load: to realise the truth that none of this sports circus ever mattered and none of it ever will.

How we use our precious time on earth is a hideous exercise in choosing to not do an infinite number of other wonderful, worthwhile things.

The hours I pump into being the spectator of football matches is necessarily time not spent in realms of connection where I am an active participant and can influence the outcome one way or another.

We must choose between spectating the living experience of celebrity strangers, or participating in the living experience of our own close community.

We can’t have both. 🤷

The temptation to quit altogether is strong. But also, I believe, a bit of a psychological dead end.

Firstly, the idea of giving up spectator sports ignores the fact that football is deeply embedded in UK culture and is extremely hard to disconnect from, especially for those of us with a lifetime of fandom behind us.

Secondly, quitting the sport would be a missed opportunity for growth, especially when a lot of the emotional investment is wrapped up in teenage shame, humiliation and dominance.


Fanatical Teenager Energy

When Liverpool win, I am transported (in a symbolic kind of a way) back to school.

I can hold my head up high, look my classmates in the eye and maybe dish out a few crowing remarks to that weekend’s losers as I swagger into the classroom.

In the real world, of course, there is no school and there is no classroom and there are no classmates.

Being a Liverpool fan as an adult has no bearing on my social status whatsoever.

Worse, actually: my chosen designation as a Liverpool fan, despite the hours I put into the role, is functionally meaningless.

There is no higher power here. There is no grand, unifying purpose — of either sport or club — to which I can align myself in daily life.

Liverpool is one of the most ideologically motivated clubs in the world, yet I struggle to see how I can apply the holy commandment ‘pass and move, it’s the Liverpool groove’ to either my writing or my relationships with family and friends.

It really is only a game.

But a part of us stubbornly remains that fanatical teenager — and that’s not a bad thing in itself, if we strive to direct that energy usefully.

And this is where I turn for inspiration to the players.

Every Game As It Comes

Before, during and after any match, including last night’s supposed title decider between Arsenal and Manchester City, you’ll hear managers and players alike trotting out the same old clichés to downplay the game’s importance.

This is typical of what the actual participants in a sport will do: break the game down into components small enough that they can hope to inflence their outcome through the skillful execution of their process.

Winning a league title is an outcome way beyond the ability of any one team, let alone player or manager, to control. A league title is one possible consequence of winning many games in a season.

Hence the cliché ‘take every game as it comes’.

But even the outcome of a single game depends on far too many interrelated complexities for any team, player or manager to control.

Instead, players focus on the tiny things that they can control: their training and preparation and the minute-by-minute execution of tactics and skills.

Nevertheless, winning a single game is only one possible consequence of even perfect execution of the game plan.

That’s why, in defeat as much as in victory, the participants of a game will obsess, not over the result, but over what really matters: process, process, process.

In other words: the opposite of what we as fans do.

We are the ones with the least control over the outcome and we are the only ones who allow ourselves to wallow deep in the disappointment of our team’s defeats and joyride the crest of euphoria long after victory.

That’s the paradox of fandom.

What Would Salah Do?

If a footballer gets too wound up after a heavy defeat, it will have a huge detrimental effect on their performance in the next match and, consequently, everything that they are working towards.

That’s why they train not only their body, but also their mind: so that they can deliver excellence on the pitch no matter what state the game is in.

Imagine — if we spectators could adopt pretty much any modern footballer’s approach to the game, then we might actually enjoy watching!

One of Liverpool’s greatest players, not just of the current team but of all time, is an Egyptian called Mohammed Salah.

Not only is Salah a practising Muslim who marks every goal with the sujud prayer, he’s also been known to celebrate on the pitch by doing a bit of yoga.

Imagine, in the explosion of joy that erupts around you, with your teammates, coaching staff and 50,000 supporters going crazy in your ears, taking a moment to be here:

Salah celebrates scoring in the 5-0 win over Huddersfield in April 2019 (Straits Times, EPA)

This celebration, one of several that Salah chose to dedicate to his meditation and yoga practice, came after he scored in the 5-0 win over Huddersfield in April 2019.

The result took Liverpool back to the top of the league table in a season where they would obliterate the all-time record for the most number of points recorded by a team finishing… second.

Now I don’t know exactly why Salah does these celebrations, but they remind me of Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines:

If you can keep your head when all about you
   Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
   But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
   And treat those two impostors just the same 
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it

Salah is sending a message to any supporter who will listen: calm the fuck down.

In varying degrees, scoring that goal, winning that game and, certainly, winning that 2019 league title were all out of Mohammad Salah’s control. And he was the one on the pitch kicking balls.

This is nothing more than another moment in our lives, Salah was saying.

Soon enough, it will all be over, so let’s breathe, shall we, and leave space to relish what we have, here, now.

The Spiritual Practice Of Spectating

Now, look: this wouldn’t be a practice if it was easy.

If becoming and remaining a world class striker isn’t easy for Mohammed Salah, why should becoming and remaining a world class spectator be any easier?

The emotions around being a football spectator are real and can be gut-wrenching. But we already know, if we’re frank with ourselves, that we grow fastest through adversity.

The harder our emotions are to process, the harder the struggle — and the better we can become as humans. That’s how spectating can become a spiritual practice.

In theory at least, the sports fan should be the best-trained person in the room to manage the hot emotions of anger and injustice of a brewing conflict, or the bitter disappointment and shame of getting fired, or even the temptation to add insult to injury when we triumph over our foes.

We’ve been there so many times before watching our team play, we should be pass masters at this.

But we’re not.

Becoming The Intro-spectator 😂

To turn this around, we need to flip the focus: we need to morph from passive spectator to active intro-spectator.

We should be not so much interested in the consequences of a heavy defeat for the business of The Liverpool Football Club And Athletic Grounds Limited with whom we have zero investment besides this inexplicable and inconsequential emotional attachment, so much as with the consequences of that heavy defeat for our own spiritual growth and emotional stability.

This isn’t about them any more, this is about us.

Any football score, good or bad, is our cue to, yes, feel our emotions, but not allow them complete mastery over us.

In that way, like Mohammad Salah, we better learn how to ride the vicissitudes of life.

If Shankly’s message is a warning about the spiritual danger of becoming over-invested in sport, then Salah’s is a gentle reminder of what we have to gain.

Salah works hard to train his mind for performance on the pitch; his performance on the pitch gives us the opportunity to work hard to train our minds for performance in the world.

Intro-spectating is zero-stakes training for healthy emotional self-regulation in the truly high-stakes moments in our own lives.

Every game we’re drilled on our responses to pleasure, anxiety, excitement, anticipation, goodwill, dread, generosity, anger, graciousness, injustice, gratitude, humiliation and magnanimity.

So let’s practice them.


Special thanks this week to DRL (👋) and CW (👋) for the conversations and provocations that led to this ridiculously long piece.

Also Mohammed Salah. YNWA.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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