NEW YORK – The flags are already flying, from Holland to Argentina, from Cameroon to Japan. Soon the drums will be beating, the trumpets blowing. Colors will be unfurled, and battle cries will sound. It’s that time again: the World Cup is upon us.
The late Rinus Michels, also known as “the General,” coach of the Dutch team that narrowly lost to Germany in the 1974 final, famously said, “Football is war.” When the Dutch had their revenge in 1988 and beat Germany to go on to become European champions, more people danced in the streets in Holland than on the day that the real war ended in May 1945.
On one occasion, in 1969, a football match between Honduras and El Salvador actually led to military conflict, known as the Soccer War. Tensions between the two countries were already high.
But then fans of the Honduras team were set upon, and even worse, the Honduran national anthem was insulted, and the country’s white and blue flag defiled.
Of course, soccer wars are rare (indeed, I can’t think of another example), but the notion that international sporting competitions inevitably inspire warm fraternity – an idea advanced by Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic games – is a romantic fiction.
The violence of British football hooligans, for example, reflects a peculiar nostalgia for war. Life in peaceful times can be dull, and British glory seems a long way in the past. Football is an opportunity to experience the thrill of combat, without risking much more than a few broken bones.
Even when football doesn’t lead to actual bloodshed, it inspires strong emotions – primitive and tribal – evoking the days when warriors donned facial paint and jumped up and down in war dances, hollering like apes. The nature of the game encourages this: the speed, the collective aggression.
Tennis does not create frenzy on a national scale. Not even boxing does, except on very rare occasions, such as when Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” beat Max Schmeling, the Nazi favorite, in 1938. After all, these forms of combat are between two individuals, not two tribes.
Arthur Koestler was right when he said that there is nationalism, and there is football nationalism – and that the latter is the more deeply felt. Koestler himself, born in Budapest but a proud British citizen, remained a Hungarian football nationalist all his life.
It helps to have traditional enemies, old hurts, and humiliations that need to be redressed, if only symbolically. It would be hard for Americans, who are neither very good at soccer, nor cursed by great historical hatreds, to share the joy of the Dutch, say, when the Germans were defeated in 1988, or that of the Koreans when they defeat Japan.
Perhaps the best example of this type of sporting nationalism was not a football game, but the world ice hockey final in 1969, when Czechoslovakia beat the Soviet Union just one year after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. The Czech players pointed their hockey sticks at the Russians like guns, and their victory provoked anti-Soviet riots back home.
Clearly, then, whatever de Coubertin might have hoped, cosmopolitanism and cross-cultural brotherhood comes less naturally to human beings than the raw emotions of the tribe.
The tribe can be a club, a clan, or a nation. Before World War II, football clubs often had an ethnic or religious component: Tottenham Hotspur in London was “Jewish,” while Arsenal was “Irish.” Vestiges of these markings remain: Ajax of Amsterdam is still taunted by provincial opponents as the “Jew club.” And the Glasgow clubs, Celtic and Rangers, are still divided by religious affiliation, Celtic being Catholic and Rangers Protestant.
But a common race or religion is not essential. The French football heroes who won the World Cup in 1998 included men of African and Arab origin, and they were proud of it.
Most successful modern football clubs are as mixed as Benetton advertisements, with coaches and players from all over the globe, but this seems to have done nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of local supporters. In some countries, football is the only thing that knits together disparate people, Shia and Sunnis in Iraq, or Muslims and Christians in Sudan.
Of course, most right-thinking people are a bit like de Coubertin. Tribal emotions are embarrassing, and dangerous when given free reign. After World War II, for obvious reasons, the expression of nationalist emotions was virtually taboo in Europe (not least in Germany).
We had all become good Europeans, and nationalism was for racists. And yet, since Koestler was right, these emotions could not simply be crushed. They had to find some outlet, and football provided it.
The football stadium became a kind of reservation where taboos on tribal frenzy and even racial antagonism could be relaxed, but only up to a point: when the taunting of Ajax supporters as rotten Jews degenerated into actual violence, sometimes accompanied by a collective hiss, mimicking escaping gas, the city authorities decided to step in. Some games have had to be played without the presence of rival supporters.
Not all football games are fraught with negative feeling and violence. This year’s World Cup might well be a festival of brotherhood and peace. Few people even care anymore when Germany wins.
But the fact that sport can unleash primitive emotions is not a reason to condemn it. Since such feelings cannot simply be wished away, it is better to allow for their ritual expression, just as fears of death, violence, and decay find expression in religion or bull fighting.
Even though some football games have provoked violence, and in one case even a war, they might have served the positive purpose of containing our more savage impulses by deflecting them onto a mere sport.
So let the games begin, and may the best team win. Which is Holland, of course, the country of my birth.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.