At the foot of a hill beneath the exquisite Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere and a short walk up the cobbled streets from the Cathedrale Saint Jean Baptiste, religion of a different kind is occupying an incongruous pride of place among the Roman artefacts and historical treasures from Lyon’s past.
The ‘Divinement foot!’ exhibition at Musee Gadagne is an exploration of the role of football’s stars as saints, sinners, gods and idols.
Also under the cultural microscope is the devotion of the sport’s fanatical followers and the great houses of worship where the beautiful game, ostensibly secular and yet bordering on the genuinely spiritual to many, is practiced.
One of the closest churches of football to the old quarter of Vieux Lyon is Parc Olympique Lyonnais, the gleaming new stadium that plays host to the city’s Ligue 1 powerhouse following their departure from the fondly remembered Stade de Gerland last season.
On Sunday the congregation, predominantly resplendent in the red, white and blue of the tricolour, were sent into raptures by Antoine Griezmann’s goals in a 2-1 win for hosts France over the Republic of Ireland in Euro 2016’s round of 16.
— musées Gadagne (@museesgadagne) June 25, 2016
Xavier de la Selle, the director of the Musee Gadagne is, ironically, not among the true believers just yet, having only attended his first match last year.
But, having been responsible for housing the exhibition following its relocation from Amsterdam, he has quickly discovered the extent to which football rivals faith as a source of inspiration, hope and indeed conflict.
“Religion is a difficult subject in France,” he said.
“Some people told us they didn’t understand why we put these two different subjects in the same exhibition. But when they saw the exhibition, they understood.
“During the match or competition, the Euro, there is like a communion between the people. Is it like a religion? Perhaps. [But] I don’t think it [football] is enough to [unite] the different religions.”
Fittingly, it is the divisive but inspiring figure of Diego Maradona who adorns the posters advertising ‘Divinement foot!’ throughout the city, the Argentina great encapsulating the theme of a display hoping to attract a new demographic of visitors to the museum during the European Championship.
“Maradona symbolises the subject of the exhibition because everybody knows him … everything about him, his story, the behaviour of everyone about him, is religious,” De la Selle said.
— musées Gadagne (@museesgadagne) June 27, 2016
On the day of our visit, the football world was processing the news of Lionel Messi’s shock retirement from Argentina duty, throwing his followers at home and around the world into a state of semi-mourning.
Messi’s great rival Cristiano Ronaldo meanwhile has made headlines for the wrong reasons here in Lyon, throwing a reporter’s microphone into a lake ahead of Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Hungary in the group stage.
De la Selle, having tailored the collection to include a tribute to Lyon great Bruno Genesio, expects Messi and Ronaldo, so often cast – perhaps too simplistically – as an angel and a devil in the unforgiving bibles of the world’s sports press, to feature prominently in future editions of the exhibition.
“It’s a very good example and comparison – it deserves to be in this exhibition,” he said of the pair’s rivalry and contrasting treatment in the media.
“I think perhaps [when] this exhibition goes to other countries, other cities – Barcelona for example can choose to speak about other subjects, perhaps about Messi.”
Such is the pride in the capital of the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region for the flagship football team, even round-ball novice De la Selle understands the city’s passion for ‘OL’, enthusing about the club’s record of developing local talent and reflecting on the collective heavy heart that accompanied the switch from Gerland to its new home.
“When we speak about Olympique Lyonnais, that is also like a religion,” he said.
“Is Olympique Lyonnais the local religion? Visitors can ask the question. The museum doesn’t bring the answer, but it’s a real question.”
There has already been plenty of late-night soul-searching among the bouchons and bars of Vieux Lyon, with the prayers of several teams, most recently Ireland, going unanswered at Euro 2016.
To make sense of the capricious and sometimes cruel whims of the football gods, fans should perhaps turn down Place du Petit College and seek ‘divin’ intervention.