Football, football every where, does it make you stop and think?

My adventure into what makes sport so attractive for all humankind (see previous post) began in Africa, in Morocco, and in the busy market city of Marrakech. To be frank, I was a little daunted to be starting here; it would be a big change from the quiet lanes and inlets of Cornwall, my previous home. Marrakech hummed and thrumed with the verve and thrust of its entrepreneurs at their market stalls. There are musicians, dancers, “tamed” snakes and chained monkeys. It was quite intense at first, but after a bit of wandering around the terracotta dusted streets I began to feel more comfortable and relaxed.

That’s nice and all, but why am I telling you this? What has even brought me here? Its a very good question, one I asked myself a short time after chatting to Anna, who had welcomed me to my riad (hostel). I naively asked her what traditional sports or games I might find in Marrakech or up in the Atlas mountains, where I subsequently took an excursion. Her answer was simple: “There is only football, every where”.

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Just a good ole kick around

This is a common pattern around the world, and it is getting more common. Go to almost any country, and where there are people with some spare time you will almost invariably find them kicking something around with their feet. Teams, individuals; goals, jumpers or a wall; matching strips or a patchwork of shirts. It thrives around the planet. Here in Morocco, immediately down otherwise dead-end alleyways there was the cut and thrust of little games as children play and play and play. Dropping out of a mountain pass from the high Atlas, before we had arrived at the first village, there it was: a rectangular pitch, two rectangular goals and the shape of a football game. Overlaps, two-on-ones, triangles; appearing and disappearing at will. The very essence of the thing. The same that you might find anywhere. And that is interesting; just why is it every where? 

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Stunning sett-Hey wait was that offside?

I described football as ” kicking something around with the feet”. This is a fairly unassuming description, but one I think serves it well. For, of all the team sports, I reckon football (by that I mean association football aka ‘soccer’) is the simplest. Some players, a ball and apart from the odd one or two players, no hands. Go, take those rules and act them out any place, any time, any how. I think this is crucial to football’s success; it’s very humbleness, its simplicity, allows it to be picked up and shared and so spread between cultures. The freedom it gives allows individual expression, letting it capture hearts and minds. The simplicity then allows football to become a global phenomenon, uniting disparate peoples under a common game.

However, football does not just unite. Around Marrakech I noticed some colourful murals. Sure, not surprising in a bustling market town with plenty of tourists. But these were not nice, arty things, oh no. These have fists, grimacing faces, the world ‘ultras’ features heavily. These murals are by and for fans of Marrakech’s football team: “Kawkab Athletic Club of Marrakech” and furthermore they advertised the presence of a thuggish set of their fans who will not tolerate the other colours of the other teams ftom around the country. These are murals celebrating the city’s football hooligans.

‘Ultras’ has Italian origins, used for the extremely set of super fans who will fight for their club as well as support it. The word is used in many countries for the same set of people. People who say: “This team, these colours, this town, this is us. You are them. We do not like you as you are not us.” You could be anyone, it does not matter. You are either inside their group or you are outside of it.

This extreme mindset is in fact fairly simple in group out group psychology, which has been studied scientifically in the past. Experiments such as the “Robbers cave” experiment (http://www.simplypsychology.org/robbers-cave.html) demonstrated that rivalries and negative stereotypes can form between otherwise very similar sets of people, simply based on an arbitrary group label. This seems to be an innate tendency of the human mind. A part of our brains seems predisposed to want to create a group. It wants to create an “us”, and so simultaneously creates a “them”. Sport in all its forms creates great opportunity to do this, dividing people by town or by country. Surprising, given we all like the same thing.

We can perhaps imagine why we might have a tendency to do this. Picture ancestral man, struggling to survive in the teeth of competition from lions, hyenas and other human(oid)s. He or she that is more willing to form a group may well survive better. Those with a strong sense of “us” might be the ones who create more cohesive groups, aiding survival of all in the group including themselves. This tendency may well the still exist within us if it is so beneficial, but manifesting itself in evolutionary novel environments. Like at a sports match.
So perhaps part of sport’s popularity is the ease with which it facilitates us vs them. Perhaps football in particular achieves this the best due to its simplicity; it generates the very essence of group competition with the minimum of input. So we are still scared savannah dwelling humans at heart, looking for a group to identify with to keep us safe from them. Its a nice sounding idea. Certainly, I’ve picked some anecdotes that support it. But whether it really explains why sport is everywhere, I think we need to do a bit more exploring. What do you think?

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