In one of the notorious demonstrations of American exceptionalism, most Americans associate the word football with a prolate spheroid moved around a gridiron by two teams of people resembling the Michelin man. Most other people use the term for what the Americans call “soccer,” unaware they are copying 19th century Oxford University snobs who abbreviated the unwieldy “Association Football” by first aspirating the “A” in “Association,” then replacing the frog-eaters’ “-ation” ending with a good, Anglo-Saxon “- er,” adding another “c” in the process to emphasize the right pronunciation, and finally dropping “football” altogether. Nevertheless, it is estimated that this exotic game, thought to be a harmless exercise for American schoolchildren, is played by about a quarter of a billion people — roughly the size of the able-bodied U.S. population — in the rest of the world, and watched by perhaps ten times as many.
The popularity of the sport, in which not much happens most of the time, is hard to explain, but probably has to do with the fact that practically anyone can do it as badly as anyone else. The few people who can do it well then acquire, justifiably, the status of demi-gods and meet every four years in a month-long orgy of mass hysteria called the World Cup.
In the euphoria of the moment it is perhaps worth noting that a few eccentrics have taken a jaundiced view of the game and its paraphernalia, detecting a connection between football and hubris, nationalism and violence. Foremost of these was George Orwell, who famously did not see much sense in “encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.” Arguing in his 1941 essay “The Sporting Spirit” that “sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will” he was appalled not so much by “the behavior of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping, and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”
It is not difficult to understand Orwell’s concerns at the time, with nationalism at its all-time high. International competitions, not just in football, served to demonstrate a nation’s prowess, readiness, willpower, and sometimes also its aggression and superiority. The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were a case in point, as were many international competitions during the Cold War era. When the Czechoslovak ice hockey team crossed their sticks with the Soviets, the contest involved many things of which ice hockey was the least important. Not much of an athlete himself, Orwell could thus be forgiven for thinking that sport is “war minus the shooting.”
Of all sports, football has probably been the one most closely associated with nationalism, brutality, and violence. Again, it was invariably not the players, but the spectators and nations who did the most damage. There has been at least one football war between two countries, and many football riots, massacres, murders, and stampedes, not to mention countless drunken fights among rowdies in almost every stadium.
And yet, Orwell seems to have been proven wrong. The violent expressions of tribalism have been subsiding for some time, certainly at the top international level. In some places football has evolved into family entertainment — comparable to an MLB game. Some of it has to do with better policing and surveillance at stadiums, preventing incidents and barring the bad apples from attending. Some of it may have to do with the social unacceptability of expressions of hatred and xenophobia in many developed societies. Much of it has to do with the multi-billion dollar business football has become. Violence is bad for business, bad for attendance, bad for television, bad for sponsors, and bad for advertisers. The politics of football may be dirty, but its outward appearance has become much cleaner. And it is also kind of difficult to engage in full-blown tribalist frenzy when most of the players on “your” team have not even been born in your country, let alone your city. All for the best, most likely.
There is just one problem. Most of the above holds true for football in rich, developed countries, which, having learned the hard way in their national histories, have become relatively immune to the excesses of mass psychopathology. For the first time in history, the World Cup just starting will take place in a young, emerging country in the process of nation-building with all its accompanying difficulties and problems, of which endemic violence is perhaps the most serious. The next thirty days constitute a monumental social experiment, in which Orwell may yet be proven right. Let us hope not. But let us also not forget that the rallying cry of the South African national team, which is the title of this piece, could also be paraphrased as “Boys will be boys.”