Think of the classic grudge matches in football (even though there wasn’t much opportunity for England to put them to the test in this year’s World Cup) and there’s a pattern:

  • England v France
  • England v Germany
  • England v Argentina
  • Scotland v England
  • Poland v Russia

Where countries once fought against each other on the battlefields or struggled with perceived oppressors, they now fight for supremacy on the pitch. Neighbours – step forward Brazil and Argentina – dispute in the stadium, not on territorial boundaries.  Football has become the expression for national rivalries and – usually – contains them very neatly.

I watched some of the football with the sound turned off – do not ask, but do try it – and the rituals embedded in the game became more pronounced. There are the anthems, of course, but substitutions had a process that seemed to be adopted by all of the teams.

The player coming off went through his own high-five with the substitute, who disappeared onto the pitch, crossing himself, kissing a cross or charm or whatever other totem makes up his personal game-on superstition. The player coming off hand-checked everyone on the bench and was given water.  Depending on his position in the team hierarchy and how touchy-feely the manager is, he might also have warranted a quick hug from the manager or one of his side-kicks (pun intended).

Goals were celebrated with leaping, more hugs and bonding, replicated by the fans in the stands.

And the fans were decked out in tribal uniform – shirts, kit, hats, face(war)-paint – colours demonstrating allegiance to the rightful cause. Identification extended to projection into the team, if not onto the pitch – “we” played Italy and “we” qualified, although it was less common to hear “we” lost.

So, if there weren’t football or another sport that can elicit such emotions and unite a country, what would be the forum for group identity and national bonding? And where would battles be fought?  That’s for another time.