Fever pitch: Football’s just a game... isn’t it?
The World Cup’s official message is this: football is a vehicle of
harmony, uniting all nations in peace under the banner of sport.
What if the truth were not so pretty? What if, instead of healing
national wounds and bringing people together, the World Cup did the
In a 1945 essay, written after a bruising tour of Britain by Moscow
Dynamo, George Orwell argued that a dangerous orgy of patriotism
develops when flags are waved, anthems sung and a country elevates its
team to the status of national champion.
“At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare,” he said.
Many may contest this as distorted and offer plenty of examples where
friendship and camaraderie flourished among strangers thanks to a big
Yet Pele’s ``beautiful game” also has an undeniable ugly side,
studded by episodes of violence among crowds and sporadic tensions among
countries. “There’s a dual message sent out,” said Richard Giulianotti,
a professor of applied social sciences at Britain’s Durham University.
“One is the message of ‘back the nation fully’ and the other is the
universal message of sport, the value of fair play, respect for the
opponent and so on. They obviously sit in opposition to each other.”
In late 19th-century Britain, the rise of football clubs was followed
by the first hooliganism in the modern game. It became a cancer in
English football in the 1970s and early 80s and is a problem in many
Egypt and Algeria last year swapped diplomatic and political blows
over frenzied qualifying matches to the World Cup that saw several
Algerian players injured by stone-throwing fans and retaliation against
Egyptians in Algeria.
A widely-forgotten footnote in history is the ``Football War,” a
real-life, four-day conflict in 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras
whose relationship had already been soured by illegal immigration and
After El Salvador lost the first round of World Cup qualifer 1-0, an
18-year-old girl, Amelia Bolanos, shot herself through the heart out of
In an instant, Bolanos became a national martyr, her funeral attended
by the head of state and football team.
When the Honduras squad arrived for the return match in San Salvador,
they had to be escorted by armoured vehicles and protected by soldiers
wielding sub-machine guns. As the local crowd jeered, the organisers
burned the Honduran flag and hoisted a “dirty dishrag” in its place,
according to contemporary accounts.
After Honduras’ 3-0 humiliation, the stage was set for a vicious war
that left between 2,000 and 6,000 people dead.
So is top-flight football a sublimated form of conflict? Is it, to
use the words of the great Dutch coach Rinus Michels, ``something like
After all, very nature of soccer is adversarial.
Militaristic words such as captain, lieutenant, victory, defeat,
striker, attack, marksman, strategy and shield — all illustrate the
nature of a sport that is fluid and fast-moving, yet combative and
strategic at the same time.
Sociologists caution that a special set of ingredients is required to
propel a match from a simple game to a question of national honour that
can unleash violence, suicide and diplomatic fisticuffs or worse.
The big factor is the creation of the “in-group” — in essence, a form
of tribalism in which people have a common identity or loyalty, which
causes them to raise emotional investment in a match.
To be in a soccer ``in-group” does not mean you have to automatically
create an “out-group” to which you are hostile, explained Clifford
Stott, a social psychologist at Britain’s University of Liverpool.